A mission of healing
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. “The war stops at 11 for lunch.”Glenwood Springs resident Allen Orcutt, 63, made that observation while serving as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. In “Hot Lunch,” one of several poems he compiled after the war in a short book called “Before Moving On,” he observed how both sides tended to end their fighting each day for a two-hour lunch break. “At 1 the war begins again”For another 22 hours.”Let’s all not come back after lunch tomorrow,” Orcutt wrote.Nearly 40 years after fighting in Vietnam, Orcutt is going back – not to fight but to help heal. He hopes to concentrate on water systems in the Quang Tri province, near the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, that once divided Vietnam. Orcutt served in the province, and the effects of Agent Orange, a defoliation product used by the U.S. military continue to be a concern there. Many have suffered health problems because of water contaminated with the substance. Also, live bombs from the war go on killing and maiming people who come across them decades later.”These people are the poorest of the poor and the worst part of the war occurred on their doorstep, I think,” Orcutt said.”There’s a sense growing among those who have been over there that we owe these people something; we ought to respond and listen,” he said.
Orcutt said when veterans from his squadron who had returned to help out in Vietnam asked for others to do the same, he jumped at the chance.”My recollection of the area is so vivid in so many ways that I feel that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t take this opportunity to go back and find out for myself where the needs are and what can be done,” he said.Strangely, considering their vividness, Orcutt says many of his memories of Vietnam are in black and white – this, in a war in which there was far from black-or-white clarity about the appropriateness of U.S. involvement. As a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam in 1968-69, Orcutt found himself torn over the U.S. role there. He believed in America’s goal of protecting the South Vietnamese, but struggled with the huge loss of life he witnessed there.”These are three guys that I had dinner with,” he says, pointing to a photo that is part of his copious collection of war-related memorabilia. “I call it the Last Supper. Two of them didn’t make it, were shot down in the DMZ.”Orcutt believes the United States should have been more flexible in its negotiations with the North Vietnamese and should have pulled out earlier. But he also felt duty-bound to do his part in the war.
“I was one of those guys who had that doctrine, ‘my country, right or wrong,'” he said.Even as he fought, his marriage dissolved as his wife became a war protester back home and eventually left him. Yet Orcutt favored peace, too, as is suggested in one of his poems in which he daydreams of going fishing with the Vietnamese instead of fighting against them.He said he has seen how unrealistic it is to rely on war to solve problems, and wishes that the politicians who decide to start wars would have to be the first to fight in them.”I never knew so many men who detested war as I did in the Marines. … These are the guys who have seen the worst of battle,” Orcutt said.
Orcutt, who is from Oklahoma City, flew 520 missions during his 13 months in Vietnam, doing medical evacuations, resupplies, flying in of troops and other functions. He was lucky to suffer no injuries there, and estimates about half of the pilot friends he went to Vietnam with didn’t survive.Orcutt managed to move on after the war, doing everything from running summer camps in his beloved Rocky Mountains in Colorado, to serving as director of corporate relations and staff training for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.Still, he has yet to find closure regarding his Vietnam experience, which continues to provide him with reminders to this day. For about 12 years Orcutt has suffered from Parkinson’s disease, which he suspects may be connected to possible exposure during the war to Agent Orange. Apparently as a result of Parkinson’s, this poet sometimes finds himself struggling to find the right words to express himself regarding his experiences in the war and his reflections on it. But as he thinks about the people in Vietnam who continue to deal with the war’s aftermath, he believes that helping them can help him achieve some closure.
Orcutt and his squadron have been working under the auspices of the nonprofit DOVE (Developed of Vietnam Endeavors) Fund. Founded by Vietnam vets, Rotary Club members and others in Ohio in 2000, it provides humanitarian and development assistance there while increasing cultural exchange between Americans and Vietnamese.Already, some of Orcutt’s squadron members have been involved in building a library, schools and a medical facility in Vietnam. Orcutt has raised $10,000 since becoming involved in September. He and his wife, Barbara, will leave March 15 for a two-week trip to Vietnam. This pilot will be back doing reconnaissance work in Vietnam, but this time his goal is to learn what can be done to deal with the threat posed by Agent Orange, which is believed to be connected to certain cancers that are prevalent in Vietnam.He doesn’t know how he will be received by the Vietnamese, but has heard they have no animosity toward American veterans. He also believes efforts such as his are what his fellow soldiers who died there would have wanted to see happen.”I think if I were to talk to any of my friends who passed on, they would say, ‘Good job, go do it, tell them I’m sorry as well.'”Orcutt is returning to Vietnam at a time when Americans find themselves divided over their involvement in yet another war. He finds it interesting to hear a growing sentiment that the solution in Iraq isn’t a military one, contrary to what war advocates believe.”The answers are still the same. They don’t realize that this has got to be a negotiated peace. We need to put the clubs down and talk,” Orcutt said.
He said he never pretended to know all the answers when it came to Vietnam, and the same goes for Iraq. But he believes strongly in taking advantage of his opportunity to go back and meet the same people he once shot at, “and make sure that they know that we’re there to help them in any way we can.”Contact Dennis Webb: email@example.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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