Northeast Ohio Vets Recall the Musical Soundtrack of Vietnam

Capt. Mary Reynolds Powell in her Army hospital, circa 1971
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by David C. Barnett

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.  

One of the legacies of that conflict is a body of popular music that reflects a wide range of opinions and emotions that divided Americans during that era.  

Gary Hall was drafted in 1969.  "All my friends were dead against me going," he says,  "but my dad was a Methodist minister and we were a good Republican family, so I just went along with the program."

During his stint as an orthopedic technician in a military hospital in Vietnam's central highlands, Hall was a daily witness to the casualties of war.  Looking back, he says there's one particular song that summarizes his Vietnam War experience.  

"We've gotta get out of this place, if it's the last thing that we ever do."   

Although the 1960s pop hit by the Animals was really about being trapped in a city slum, We Gotta Get Out of This Place takes on a very different meaning for many who served in Vietnam.  

"It's the Vietnam vet's national anthem," says Craig Werner, a University of Wisconsin music scholar and co-author of new book that's also called We Gotta Get Out of This Place.  It traces the popular music of the Vietnam era --- from some initial patriotic ballads… to songs that raised questions about the war.  Werner says, that difference mirrored the contradictions American troops faced on the battlefield.
"They went over thinking the war was going to be one kind of thing, and when they got there --- again and again and again --- they found out what they were seeing wasn't what they had been told.  And often they turned to the music to help them make sense."
The civil rights struggle back home raised additional questions for some local African American soldiers, like Lloyd Brown.  
"I think the toughest part was coming back," he recalls.   People felt they didn't have the opportunities for work, like some of our white counterparts.  People were ashamed, and doors of opportunity weren't open.  What's Going On by Marvin Gaye probably stated it.  Why is this thing going on?  What's happening, brother?"          

Mary Reynolds Powell was a 23-year-old Captain in the Army Nurse Corps tending to a continuing stream of 18- and 19-year-old soldiers, some of whom hadn't even started to shave, yet.  The Clevelander says music allowed patients and medical staff, alike, to share their feelings of confusion…and anger.

"In singing those songs together," she recalls,  "whether it's We Gotta Get Out of This Place or  Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son, it was honest.  It was honest affirmation."

Writer Craig Werner says music also played a role in helping some veterans heal, once they came home.  He and co-author Douglas Bradley spent nearly a decade interviewing dozens of vets about how music helped them navigate the experience of war…and recovery in its aftermath.

"Sometimes that started soon, and sometimes it took decades.  But, many of the most powerful stories we've heard about how guys survived and finally, actually made it home, had to do with music."

Music that: provided solidarity… sometimes served as a channel to vent rage… and, occasionally, took veterans like Gary Hall to a slightly more optimistic place, as he recalls the lyrics of "Get Together", by ther Youngbloods:

"Come on people now, smile on each other, everybody get together, gotta love one another, right now."  

He pauses, "That's the one I remember really strongly from that time."  


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