“We Vietnam veterans are unique. We’re the only Vets that’s been tossed eggs and spat at, the only war veterans that have been treated like a piece of shit.” Charles Brown, US Army Specialist E-4, says from his home, sitting barefoot in jeans and a pink T-shirt with the words “big daddy” faded across the front. Rows of pill-jars line the mirrored cabinet, in which a gold-framed picture of The Last Supper is reflected. He adds, “I try not to think about my war experiences. I’ve got enough medicine to keep me that way.”
This is one in a series of 50 portraits of Vietnam Vets by Jeffrey Wolin, accompanied by interviews and a snapshot of their former selves in combat 30–40 years ago. Their “inconvenient stories” recall personal events from the war, but more telling and powerful are their reflections and confessions from the days, months and years since they came home.
Insights into the prevalent, ensuing alcoholism and weed-smoking are common. Benito R Garcia Jr, who’s been in trouble with the law since being discharged, talks about the ’Nam nightmares he suffers and how the only way he can get through the night “is when I’m passed out drunk”. Now on parole, he is clean, but when he finishes in 14 months time has plans to “roll a fucking joint the size of a bus and kill it in one drag.”
Pain is a part of the stare in all of Wolin’s portraits. There is something in their eyes that links all these middle-aged American men together, across race, location and degrees of hair-line recession. Whether looking directly into the camera or somewhere off into the distance, a certain sadness is not far from the surface. Their trust in Wolin is evident. He has succeeded, with sensitivity, in capturing the long-reaching psychological shadows of the Vietnam war.
African-American Vets reveal the racial divides within the army and how the war was played out in tandem with the civil rights movement back home. Simba Wiley Roberts recalls how after returning to the US and picking up the remainder of his pay, he stopped at a bar to be told, “We don’t serve niggers here.”
The photographic portraits and written testaments are eloquent. The only frustration is that we are left not knowing enough about the man in the picture: where is he now, what does he do, and how does he feel about his view across the lake, or his strip of golfing green upon his shag-pile carpet? The sanctuary created by each man is fascinating to observe. Many of them wonder, however, about the next generation returning from Iraq: how will they fare into middle age?