Last March, KUED aired the first episode of Utah Vietnam War Stories, a powerful documentary tribute to the men and women of Utah who served during the Vietnam conflict. The second gripping segment, built upon dozens of interviews with soldiers, sailors, airmen and medical personnel, Turning Point is a compelling oral history of the pivotal months in Vietnam during and immediately after the Tet Offensive of 1968. Turning Point will debut September 10th at 7:00pm, featuring an interview with Payson’s own Pete Koense.
Pete Koense began his military service in Berlin, where the U.S. Military used rubber bullets in their tanks. Flying into the lead-filled jungles of Vietnam was quite a shock for the 19-year-old. His first convoy was attacked, and with live fire flying over his head, Koense resorted to training, in which he was told to get permission before shooting at anyone. The more experienced officer next to him quickly brought him down to Earth: “You better start shooting or you're gonna go home in a body bag,” he told Koense.
He was stationed at a far west post called Ben Het, a covert military operation that was only unclassified in 2007. In addition to the frequent firefights, there were many, more insidious, health hazards lurking around Bet Het firebase. Agent Orange was dumped around firebases to create a “kill zone,” or a zone in which the enemy could not hide in the foliage, surrounding the base. “It literally killed everything. How did we know it was gonna kill us too?” Unaware of the medical hazards, men would wash in a nearby stream that was highly contaminated with the herbicide. Luckily the men never drank water from that stream – in face they rarely drank water at all. “Water was unavailable, especially at Ben Het,” explains Koense. When they flew supplies in to us, we generally got either beer or more beer.” Beer became more than a habit for a lot of the special forces in his situation, especially after returning to the U.S.
The plane that brought Koense and about 450 other soldiers back from Vietnam landed in California, amongst throngs of protesters, and the frustrated troops clashed violently with them. He was glad to be going back to Utah, where he thought people would be more accepting. He was wrong. “The first weekend, I went down to the store and bumped into some of my old friends that had already gotten married. They wanted nothing to do with me. They shunned me,” he says. No one at his church would talk to him, and even his brother, a psychologist, turned Koense away when he sought help for his PTSD. “So I climbed in the bottle.”
After a long recovery, he now seeks to help other veterans, especially those returning from recent military action overseas. He feels an obligation “to the servicemen who are coming home now, that they're not kicked in the teeth, that they're not thrown down the wayside.” He feels a deep solidarity with these veterans, who, even though they are welcomed home by parades and not protests, often suffer from the same problems that have afflicted Vietnam veterans. “We don't want 'em just thrown into a psychiatric unit; we want to help these guys,” Koense insists.
The second episode of a projected three-part documentary series, Utah Vietnam War Stories: Turning Point provides a sense of the wide scope of human experience that took place during the Vietnam War. Additional episodes of Utah Vietnam War Stories will debut in early 2013.
Utah Vietnam War Stories is made possible by The Katherine W. Dumke and Ezekiel R. Dumke, Jr. Foundation, The George S. and Delores Doré Eccles Foundation and the contributing members of KUED.
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