Members of the Misawa USAF Security Service held their 2018 reunion in Branson, MO, August 8 – 12, 2018.
Tunnel Rat band member, Harold Hollingshed, served at Misawa Air Force base in the USAFSS during the Cold War. He and his fellow Tunnel Rats band members traveled to Branson and entertained the group with an impromptu jam Thursday night and on stage Friday evening, August 10th.
Recognizing the growing importance of electronic intelligence following World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, the United States Air Force established the USAF Security Service (USAFSS) in 1947 which evolved to the current Air Force Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (AF ISR) Agency.
Unable to speak about the specifics of their work, veteran, Russ Butcher describes their service best in his poem:
by Russ Butcher
What is the make-up of this breed,
these strange and special few?
Where do they come from, year-on-year?
What is it that they do?
They are like shadows in the night
or vapor in the air,
so seldom seen and rarely heard
but rest assured, they’re there
They come not from a single place,
they come from far and wide,
the open plains, the city streets,
the rural countryside
They are the farmer’s little boy,
the girl who lived next door,
the uncle of a high school friend
who gave his life at war
They are the barber’s youngest child
who heard his country call,
or friends with whom we laughed and sipped
whose names are on “THE WALL”
And what they do, you needn’t ask
for none will ever tell,
in silence based on “need to know”
they proudly serve so well
They’re much the same as all before
who vanquished freedom’s foe,
they are the ones who fuel the fire
which keeps THE TORCH aglow.
For The Tunnel Rats, supporting their community is more than performing alone. It means helping other veterans and their families in need.
Harold Hollingshed presented checks from GVVA Chapter 1, Walt Cusick, Jr. – American Legion Post 29 Commander, John Bevich – GVVA Chapter 1 Treasurer, as well as donations from the staff at Semper Fi Bar & Grille, and other veterans from the Woodstock, GA area.
I have never been a fan of recreating a perfectly good wheel – a policy that carries over to The Tunnel Rats Blog. Our Blog has purpose. Ultimately our goal is to raise awareness of, and honor those in the Armed Forces who have served, or are serving our country. As our name Tunnel Rats Music suggests, our roots are in the Vietnam War. Understandably our content shares that focus.
One of our favorite Vietnam War blogs has a strange name,Cherries – A Vietnam War Novel, by John Podlaski who served as an infantryman in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. John started the blog in 2010 to introduce his first book, “Cherries”, but now it has grown into “a collection of articles, pictures, and videos relating to not only The Vietnam War, but also in presenting interesting facts or articles relating to previous or current wars.”
What makes this website stand out? John says it best on his “What this blog is about” post:
Some readers have also expressed their gratitude to me for maintaining this website as many of the articles are enhancing their education about the Vietnam War. I’ve also heard from family members of Vietnam Vets, thanking me for putting into words what their Vet is unable to tell.
Cherries – A Vietnam War Novel is an exemplar of a perfectly good wheel.
Much of the content served up by “Cherries” is worth curating. Case in point, a July 30, 2017 blog post:
Many creative endeavors result from people and events coming together in time and space. Tunnel Rats Music represents such a nexus. See how, in Part II of “Music Tells The Story.”
In Part I, we followed Sid Orr, a Marine Corp veteran who wrote Vietnam ballads to come to terms with his war memories. After many years and much toil, he released a CD, Vietnam: The Journey, in 2013. In Part II, we see Sid collaborating with Robin Daniel and Libby Wilson to create Vietnam: The Journey Continues and Tunnel Rats Music.
By 2016, Sid had enough material for a second CD, but he needed to collaborate with musicians sharing his goal to help veterans, both through music and community. He didn’t have to look far. Sid knew Robin Daniel and Libby Wilson from regular Bluegrass jams and events. They discovered that their shared interests and diverse talents made a great team. Here is their story.
Enter Robin and Libby
After his first CD experience, Sid knew he couldn’t do another one alone. He needed to work with others who shared his desire to help veterans through music. It’s no surprise that through the welcoming and encouraging Bluegrass music community, Sid found the answer.
Several years before, Dickson Lester, leader of the The Mars Hill Porch Pickers, and fellow Vietnam veteran, met Sid at the Australian Bakery Tuesday Night Bluegrass Jam and asked Sid to play bass for his band.
Dickson, “The Pied Piper of Bluegrass” always includes others, inviting them to play any time he can. In fact, Dickson and Mars Hill encouraged Robin Daniel to perform with them which led to her starting her own band. A band that included Libby Wilson.
Libby, an aspiring songwriter in her own right, learned through workshops that songwriting didn’t have to be a solitary endeavor – creativity blossoms in collaboration. Knowing Sid was a songwriter who had released a CD, Libby wondered if he would share his experiences, and perhaps help her with her songs.
Robin, who never considered writing a song, was awed by those who did, and was fascinated by the process. She had no idea her love of music, passion for helping others, endless energy, and natural organization skills would be so important to this nascent songwriting circle.
Little did they know, this was the beginning of something special.
The Songwriting Circle
In December 2015, they began writing in earnest, with a goal of having the second CD released by Memorial Day, 2016. Given the short time frame, they’d have to keep a tight schedule. Robin, a project manager at heart, kept the project on track and organized their songwriting sessions.
Meeting weekly, Sid shared the “hooks” and “phrases” he created over the years. As the three immersed themselves in the writing, Robin and Libby realized how little they really knew about the war in Vietnam. Born in three different decades, they had very different perspectives. In 1969, while Sid was in country, Robin was just starting high school, and Libby was a young child. Sid graciously, and sometimes painfully, described the physical and emotional toll the war exacted on him and his fellow Vietnam veterans.
Inspired by the impact of Sid’s stories, Libby sat aside during one session writing a song “For The Rest of Us:”
We’ve seen it in the movies, we’ve heard it on the news
But we only can imagine life walking in their shoes
Asking them to share with us the story that we lack
A window into their world and strength to take us back
Seeking more to understand,
we journey to the wall
In the face of quiet reflection we can
hear their voices call
Oh the memories they’ve told
As cleared through the dust
Are the history they hold
For the rest of us
Although they didn’t realize it at the time, this song put the trio on the path to uncover a “living theme” of strength in sharing by the Vietnam veteran and his community.
In January 2016, Libby arranged a meeting for the group with her friend, Sanfora DiMola, at her home in Ellijay, Georgia. Sanfora had begun her nursing career in 1965 working with some of the first returning Vietnam veterans. She told them about her “warriors” and the groundbreaking work on PTSD they spearheaded.
Sid knew all too well that although the veterans returned physically, they couldn’t leave the memories behind. From “I Was There Last Night:”
A man is sitting at a diner,
cup of coffee in his hand
His hat says I’m a veteran
of that war in Vietnam
There is character in his face,
There’s wisdom in his eyes
So when the waitress stopped to ask
him, he was somewhat surprised
Sir, When were you in Vietnam?
I was there last night
Right back in that firefight
Lingering smell of Cordite
In the distance a flash of light means
Some hero’s dying
Some hero’s crying
Just waiting for the next
dust off flight
You ask me when I was in the Nam
I was there last night
I could tell you about a war
that just keeps coming back
Hits you with no warning
like an ambush or a VC attack
It steals your life away…
For several hours that afternoon, Sanfora shared the experiences that shaped her career helping Vietnam veterans.
As Sid, Robin, and Libby prepared to leave, Robin asked, “If you could give one message to Vietnam veterans and their families, what would it be?” Sanfora responded immediately, “There is hope, and you are not alone.”
Inspired to write a song to convey Sanfora’s message, Sid, Robin, and Libby wrote “You’re Not Alone” to encourage suffering veterans. From “You’re Not Alone:”
Do you hope for healing from the pain?
Do you hope for healing from the shame?
You have served your country well
You feel you’ve been thru Hell
Son you’re not to blame…
Your country feels the same
There’s Hope, There’s Hope ,
There’s Hope there’s always hope, you’re not alone
From Songwriting to CD
By March 2016, the songs were ready for the next phase – Production! Sid, Robin, and Libby recorded some rough cuts and sent them along with the lyrics to Johnny Johnson at Johnson Brothers Recording Studio in Covington, Georgia. After Johnny performed his magic, arranging the music for his studio musicians, they were ready to begin.
At the first recording session, Johnny worked closely with Sid, Robin, and Libby to ensure he captured the essence of the songs and created the sound they wanted.
As they worked through the songs, Johnny encouraged Sid to “tell his story” in his own voice in two songs, “I Was There Last Night” and “It’s All In Your Head.”
Sid wanted a female vocalist for “The Rest of Us,” and “You’re Not Alone,” and Johnny had the perfect lead vocalist, Carrie Bowen. Robin and Libby sang the beautiful harmonies in “The Rest of Us.”
Two songs needed a banjo player to add a Bluegrass feel. They thought of their friend, teacher, and mentor, Jim “Duck” Adkins, leader and banjo player for the Cedar Hill band. Robin told Duck about the Vietnam ballads project and asked how much he’d charge to come to the studio. He declined payment and graciously donated his time and talent.
The CD production and recording was truly a collaborative, community experience.
To The Presses
With all the songs recorded and mastered, they were sent to press. Sid’s previous CD production experience with Disc Makers, an online CD production company, was vital. Knowing what to expect made the process manageable, especially when they hit a snag.
Although Disc Makers had done an excellent job designing the graphics for the first CD, their design ideas for The Journey Continues completely missed the mark. Fortunately, Disc Makers had the option to upload a custom design. Robin used her computer resources and graphics experience to create a new design for the CD cover layout in time to meet their deadline.
Vietnam: The Journey Continues – Released May 18, 2016
During one of their early writing sessions, Sid took Robin and Libby to Semper Fi Bar and Grill for inspiration. Semper Fi, owned and operated by Marine veterans, Carrie and Ralph Roeger, is a unique place where,
“All are welcome, but Veterans and First Responders are honored, A place where Veterans can sit and tell Their Story! It’s these stories of serving our great nation that forge the common bond they have.”
– Ralph and Carrie Roeger
The walls are filled with pictures and artifacts donated by customers and patrons to remember and honor those who have served. It was the perfect place for a CD release party.
Surrounded by veterans, friends. and family, Tunnel Rats Music released their first CD – Vietnam: The Journey Continues. Fellow musicians, and Vietnam veterans Harold Hollingshed and Joe Curry, sat in with Sid, Dickson Lester, and the Mars Hill Porch Pickers to entertain the crowd.
Robin’s close friends, Deb Gerace, Philippa Anderson, and Mary Slider, of Vintage Vocals, delighted the audience with a staged and costumed WWII USO-style show.
Sanfora DiMola attended the release party as a special guest and was recognized for her important contributions to the CD.
The CD release marked the end of an exciting experience for the Tunnel Rats Music song writing team. As they began work on a new CD, they were delayed by a surprising turn of events. In Part III of the story, learn how a Tunnel Rats CD that surfaced in a Thrift Store in North Georgia launched them on a new journey in a new direction.
Have you ever heard someone recounting an experience that was very similar to your own? Painful or pleasant it often evokes the feeling of “Hey! I’m not alone in this!” For veterans this can be especially powerful.
When we asked Sanfora DiMola, a long time PTSD counselor who was introduced to PTSD by veterans returning from Vietnam in 1965 – If you had one message you would like to all veterans and their families to know, what would it be? Sanfora replied without hesitation, “You are not alone, and there is hope.”
In our experience, when Vietnam veterans share experiences, whether in prose, or poetry, song, or art, you can tell when it hits the mark. In some cases it can help ease the sense of loneliness, guilt or shame that has plagued so many of our Veterans. In some cases it might be a life line thrown at just the right time.
We came across this piece titled The Sound That Binds written by Keith Nightingale to share the experience of flying to and from combat in a Huey. Keith says: “I wrote this as a Grunt that rode to work on these for two tours and more. This is what you flew from the passenger perspective.”
The following appears unedited. Hope you enjoy it, and share it with others who might also.
The Sound That Binds
Unique to all who served in Vietnam is the UH1H helicopter- both devil and angel which served as both extremely well. Whether a LRRP, US or RVN soldier or civilian, whether, NVA, VC, Allied or civilian, it provided a sound and sense that lives with us all today. It is the one sound that immediately clears the clouds of time and freshens the forgotten images within our mind. It will be the sound track of our last moments on earth. It was a simple machine-a single engine, a single blade and four man crew-yet like the Model T, it transformed us all and performed tasks the engineers and designers never imagined. For soldiers, it was the worst and best of friends, but it was the one binding material in a tapestry of a war of many pieces.
The smell was always hot, filled with JP4 fumes, sharp drafts accentuated by gritty sand, laterite and anxious vibrations. It always held the spell of the unknown and the anxiety of learning what was next and what might be. It was an unavoidable magnet for the heavily laden soldier who donkey-trotted to its squat shaking shape through the haze and blast of dirt, stepped on the OD skid, turned and dropped his ruck on the cool aluminum deck. Reaching inside with his rifle or machine gun, a soldier would grasp a floor ring with a finger as an extra precaution of physics for those moments when the now airborne bird would break into a sharp turn revealing all ground or all sky to the helpless riders all very mindful of the impeding weight on their backs. The relentless weight of the ruck combined with the stress of varying motion caused fingers and floor rings to bind almost as one. Constant was the vibration, smell of hydraulic fluid, flashes of visionary images and the occasional burst of a ground-fed odor-rotting fish, dank swampy heat, cordite or simply the continuous sinuous currents of Vietnam’s weather-cold and driven mist in the Northern monsoon or the wall of heated humidity in the southern dry season. Blotting it out and shading the effect was the constant sound of the rotating blade as it ate a piece of the air, struggling to overcome the momentary physics of the weather.
To divert anxiety, a soldier/piece of freight, might reflect on his home away from home. The door gunners were usually calm which was emotionally helpful. Each gun had a C ration fruit can at the ammo box clip entrance to the feed mechanism of the machine gun. The gun had a large circular aiming sight unlike the ground pounder version. That had the advantage of being able to fix on targets from the air considerably further than normal ground acquisition. Pears, Apricots, Apple Sauce or Fruit Cocktail- it all worked. Fruit cans had just the right width to smoothly feed the belt into the gun which was always a good thing. Some gunners carried a large oil can, much like old locomotive engineers, to squeeze on the barrel to keep it cool. Usually this was accompanied by a large OD towel or a khaki wound pack bandage to allow a rubdown without a burned hand. Under the gunners seat was usually a small dairy-box filled with extra ammo boxes, smoke grenades, water, flare pistol, C rats and a couple of well-worn paperbacks. The gun itself might be attached to the roof of the helicopter with a bungi cord and harness. This allowed the adventurous gunners to unattach the gun from the pintle and fire it manually while standing on the skid with only the thinnest of connectivity to the bird. These were people you wanted near you-particularly on extractions.
The pilots were more mysterious. You only saw parts of them as they labored behind the armored seats- an arm, a helmeted head and the occasional fingered hand as it moved across the dials and switches on the ceiling above. The armored side panels covered their outside legs-an advantage the passenger did not enjoy. Sometimes, a face, shielded behind helmeted sunshades, would turn around to impart a question with a glance or display a sense of anxiety with large white-circled eyes-this was not a welcoming look as the sounds of external issues fought to override the sounds of mechanics in flight. Yet, as a whole, the pilots got you there, took you back and kept you maintained. You never remembered names, if at all you knew them, but you always remembered the ride and the sound.
Behind each pilot seat usually ran a stretch of wire or silk attaching belt arrayed with a variety of handy items for immediate use. Smoke grenades were the bulk of the attachment inventory-most colors and a couple of white phosphorous if a dramatic marking was needed. Sometimes, trip flares or hand grenades would be included depending on the location and mission. Hand grenades were a rare exception as even pilots knew they exploded-not always where intended. It was just a short arm motion for a door gunner to pluck an inventory item off the string, pull the pin and pitch it which was the point of the arrangement. You didn’t want to be in a helicopter when such an act occurred as that usually meant there was an issue. Soldiers don’t like issues that involve them. It usually means a long day or a very short one-neither of which is a good thing.
The bird lifts off in a slow, struggling and shaking manner. Dust clouds obscure any view a soldier may have. Quickly, with a few subtle swings, the bird is above the dust and a cool encompassing wind blows through. Sweat is quickly dried, eyes clear and a thousand feet of altitude show the world below. Colors are muted but objects clear. The rows of wooden hootches, the airfield, local villages, an old B52 strike, the mottled trail left by a Ranchhand spray mission and the open reflective water of a river or lake are crisp in sight. The initial anxiety of the flight or mission recedes as the constantly moving and soothing motion picture and soundtrack unfolds. In time, one is aware of the mass of UH1H’s coalescing in a line in front of and behind you. Other strings of birds may be left or right of you-all surging toward some small speck in the front lost to your view. Each is a mirror image of the other-two to three laden soldiers sitting on the edge looking at you and your accompanying passengers all going to the same place with the same sense of anxiety and uncertainty but borne on a similar steed and sound.
In time, one senses the birds coalescing as they approach the objective. Perhaps a furtive glance or sweeping arc of flight reveals the landing zone. Smoke erupts in columns-initially visible as blue grey against the sky. The location is clearly discernible as a trembling spot surrounded by a vast green carpet of flat jungle or a sharp point of a jutting ridge. As the bird gets closer, a soldier can now see the small FAC aircraft working well-below, the sudden sweeping curve of the bombing runs and the small puffs as artillery impacts. A sense of immense loneliness can begin to obscure one’s mind as the world’s greatest theatre raises its curtain. Even closer now, with anxious eyes and short breath, a soldier can make out his destination. The smoke is now the dirty grey black of munitions with only the slightest hint of orange upon ignition. No Hollywood effect is at work. Here, the physics of explosions are clearly evident as pressure and mass over light.
The pilot turns around to give a thumbs up or simply ignores his load as he struggles to maintain position with multiple birds dropping power through smoke swirls, uplifting newly created debris, sparks and flaming ash. The soldiers instinctively grasp their weapons more tightly, look furtively between the upcoming ground and the pilot and mentally strain to find some anchor point for the next few seconds of life. If this is the first lift in, the door gunners will be firing rapidly in sweeping motions of the gun, but this will be largely unknown and unfelt to the soldiers. They will now be focused on the quickly approaching ground and the point where they might safely exit. Getting out is now very important. Suddenly, the gunners may rapidly point to the ground and shout “GO” or there may just be the jolt of the skids hitting the ground and the soldiers instinctively lurch out of the bird, slam into the ground and focus on the very small part of the world they now can see. The empty birds, under full power, squeeze massive amounts of air and debris down on the exited soldiers blinding them to the smallest view. Very quickly, there is a sudden shroud of silence as the birds retreat into the distance and the soldiers begin their recovery into a cohesive organization losing that sound.
On various occasions and weather dependent, the birds return. Some to provide necessary logistics, some command visits and some medevacs. On the rarest and best of occasions, they arrive to take you home. Always they have the same sweet sound which resonates with every soldier who ever heard it. It is the sound of life, hope for life and what may be. It is a sound that never will be forgotten. It is your and our sound.
Logistics is always a trial. Pilots don’t like it, field soldiers need it and weather is indiscriminate. Log flights also mean mail and a connection to home- where real people live and live real lives. Here is an aberrant aspect of life that only that sound can relieve. Often there is no landing zone or the area is so hot that a pilot’s sense of purpose may become blurred. Ground commander’s beg and plead on the radio for support that is met with equivocations or insoluble issues. Rations are stretched from four to six days, cigarettes become serious barter items and soldiers begin to turn inward. In some cases, perhaps only minutes after landing, fire fights break out. The machine guns begin their carnivorous song. Rifle ammunition and grenades are expended with gargantuan appetites. The air is filled with an all-encompassing sound that shuts each soldier into his own small world-shooting, loading, shooting, loading, shooting, loading until he has to quickly reach into the depth of his ruck, past the extra rations, past the extra rain poncho, past the spare paperback, to the eight M16 magazines forming the bottom of the load-never thought he would need them. A resupply is desperately needed. In some time, a sound is heard over the din of battle. A steady whomp whomp whomp that says: The World is here. Help is on the way. Hang in there. The soldier turns back to the business at hand with a renewed confidence. Wind parts the canopy and things begin to crash through the tree tops. Some cases have smoke grenades attached-these are the really important stuff-medical supplies, codes and maybe mail. The sound drifts off in the distance and things are better for the moment. The sound brings both a psychological and a material relief.
Wounds are hard to manage and message for the bird. The body is all soft flesh, integrated parts and an emotional burden for those that have to watch its deterioration. If the body is an engine, blood is the gasoline;–when it runs out, so does life. It is important the parts get quickly fixed and the blood is restored to a useful level. If not, the soldier becomes another piece of battlefield detritus. A field medic has the ability to stop external blood flow-less internal. He can replace blood with fluid, but it is not blood. He can treat for shock, but he cannot always stop it. He is at the mercy of his ability and the nature of the wound. Bright red is surface bleeding he can manage but dark red, almost tar-colored, is deep, visceral and beyond his ability to manage. Dark is the essence of the casualty’s interior. He needs the help that only that sound can bring. If an LZ exists, it is wonderful and easy. If not, difficult options remain. The bird weaves back and forth above the canopy as the pilot struggles to find the location of the casualty. He begins a steady hover as he lowers the litter on a cable. The gunner or helo medic looks down at the small figures below and tries to wiggle the litter and cable through the tall canopy to the small up reaching figures below. In time, the litter is filled and the cable retreats -the helo crew still carefully managing the cable as it wends skyward. The cable hits its anchor, the litter is pulled in and the pilot pulls pitch and quickly disappears-but the retreating sound is heard by all and the silent universal thought-There but for the Grace of God go I-and it will be to that sound.
Cutting a landing zone is a standard soldier task. Often, to hear the helicopter’s song, the impossible becomes a requirement and miracles abound. Sweat-filled eyes, blood blistered hands, energy-expended and with a breath of desperation and desire, soldiers attack a small space to carve out sufficient open air for the helicopter to land. Land to bring in what’s needed, take out what’s not and to remind them that someone out there cares. Perhaps some explosives are used-usually for the bigger trees, but most often it is soldiers and machetes or the side of an e-tool. Done under the pressure of an encroaching enemy, it’s a combination of high adrenalin rush and simple dumb luck-small bullet, big space. In time, an opening is made and the sky revealed. A sound encroaches before a vision. Eyes turn toward the newly created void and the bird appears. The blade tips seem so much wider than the newly-columned sky. Volumes of dirt, grass, leaves and twigs sweep upward and are then driven fiercely downward through the blades as the pilot struggles to do a completely vertical descent through the narrow column he has been provided. Below, the soldiers both cower and revel in the free-flowing air. The trash is blinding, but the moving air feels so great. Somehow, the pilot lands in a space that seems smaller than his blade radius. In reverse, the sound builds and then recedes into the distance-always that sound. Bringing and taking away.
Extraction is an emotional highlight of any soldier’s journey. Regardless of the austerity and issues of the home base, for that moment, it is a highly desired location and the focus of thought. It will be provided by that familiar vehicle of sound. The Pickup Zone in the bush is relatively open or if on an established firebase or hilltop position, a marked fixed location. The soldiers awaiting extraction, close to the location undertake their assigned duties-security, formation alignment or LZ marking. Each is focused on the task at hand and tends to blot out other issues. As each soldier senses his moment of removal is about to arrive, his auditory sense becomes keen and his visceral instinct searches for that single sweet song that only one instrument can play. When registered, his eyes look up, and he sees what his mind has imaged. He focuses on the sound and the sight and both become larger as they fill his body. He quickly steps unto the skid and up into the aluminum cocoon. Turning outward now, he grasps his weapon with one hand and with the other holds the cargo ring on the floor-as he did when he first arrived at this location. Reversing the flow of travel, he approaches what he temporarily calls home. Landing again in a swirl of dust, JP4 and grinding sand, he offloads and trudges toward his assembly point. The sounds retreat in his ears, but he knows he will hear them again. He always will.
Silent for many decades, Vietnam veterans tell their stories in different ways, through books, blogs, articles, and music. One veteran, Sid Orr, found his voice by writing Vietnam ballads, telling the emotional story through poignant lyrics reflecting his and others’ experiences during their time “in country.”
Sid grew up in rural Missouri, and like many “farm boys” of the era, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 18 after receiving his draft card. He served in the Marine Corps for four years, the last of which was in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner stationed in Phu Bai, just south of the DMZ.
After returning from Vietnam, he made his way to Georgia and joined the Georgia Air National Guard serving another 30 years!
Sid is a humble and thoughtful man, and his war experiences affected him deeply, staying with him through the decades. Like other Vietnam veterans, he felt a subconscious anger and shame that permeated his soul. And like others, he didn’t talk about it.
In the song, “Powder Blue” from his first CD, he describes how the war is never far away:
I hear the mortars on the hillside
Smoke covers my morning dew
But the damn war is never behind me
It colors all that I do
Returning from Vietnam, veterans like Sid faced many challenges. Unlike other wars, they went to war alone – not as part of a unit. They returned alone having to reintegrate into a society where many demonized those who fought “in country.” Friends, family members, and others who wanted to help didn’t understand. They couldn’t possibly. Sid says it best in his song, “He Can’t Go Back Home From Vietnam”:
He can’t go back home from Vietnam
Ain’t nobody there will understand
They want their boy back home
But that boy, he’s long gone
They took fifteen years of his
Just paid him for one
Songwriting is A Passion, a calling
By the 1980s, Sid had what can only be described as a passion for songwriting, all kinds, but particularly country western and then bluegrass. The “three-chord poet” carried a notebook and a cassette recorder with him everywhere, even pulling off the highway to record his thoughts. During this time, the Vietnam songs kept “bugging” him – they had to be written.
Although they began as a personal cathartic experience, they evolved into a story Sid wanted to tell. The lyrics describe the action but convey so much more.
The Vietnam veteran and his family’s lives changed forever after he received his draft card. If a boy didn’t go to college, he had thirty days to decide to enlist or be drafted. From “You’ve Got Thirty Days:”
I was just 18
Figured out the score
Rich kids go to college
Poor kids go to war
Some things were not an option
Like running to Montreal
Didn’t think that way
We answered our nation’s call
Put your life on hold now
Tell your friends goodbye
You’ve got 30 days to decide
Fighting in Vietnam, the warrior faced death or worse. The Missing In Action (MIA) just disappeared. For their families, the war never ended.
In the “MIA Song: I’ll Be Right Back,” a recon patrol clears a place to dig in – one man goes out to set the perimeter and never returns.
Gonna leave my noisy helmet here
Gonna leave my belt and pack
The last thing the hero said
“Sarge, I’ll be right back.”
They never sent his helmet home.
Never sent his belt and pack.
The only remains were memories
To his hometown high school class
But they swore to God they won’t lose hope
They’ll hold out to the last
Because the promise that he made
“Hey, Mom, I’ll be right back.”
For the Vietnam vets who came home, the memories remain. As for the rest of us – there is a black granite wall that will not let us forget the 58,000+ warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice. From the song “As Long As The Black Granite Stands”:
He wore a helmet and heavy dark green vest
To protect his head and the best part of his chest
Chaplain told his men, that the vest won’t even start
To protect the wounded soldier’s heart
As long as the black granite stands
58,000 names man to man
Words of the chaplain come alive
Oh in our hearts our brothers never die
We’ll never let our brothers’ memories die
Recording Ain’t That Easy
Sid didn’t plan to make a CD, he just wanted to record demos of a few of his songs. He worked with local studios, singing and playing guitar to a piano accompaniment. After spending hours and hours on the time-consuming task of recording and editing tracks on reel-to-reel recording systems, they just didn’t sound good. Sid burned out on his songs – but he never quit writing, and wouldn’t or couldn’t let go of his Vietnam ballads.
From the mid-1990’s to 2010 recording had to take a back seat. As part of the Air National Guard, Sid “commuted” between Atlanta, GA area to Warner Robins Air Force Base in middle Georgia from 1994 to 1999. At the same time, he was taking education courses, eventually acquiring his teaching credentials. After retiring from the Georgia Air National Guard in 1999, he taught high school until he retired from education in 2010.
For the first time in over fifteen years, he had the time to devote to his songwriting, and to the Vietnam ballads that wouldn’t let him go – the time had come.
The First CD Is Born
Remembering his previous recording experience, Sid decided to go to Nashville, the “Home of Country Music,” with professional studio musicians and vocalists. He met Galen Breen at Gator Hole Studios, and the two discussed the ballads and how Sid wanted to convey his message. Sid returned home and prepared two songs a week for Galen to record. With Nashville studio musicians and the talent of 70’s country western singer, David Wills, the songs came to life in the 2013 CD release – Vietnam: The Journey.
After the CD’s release, Sid found it rewarding to receive positive feedback from friends, family, and fellow veterans who were “blown away,” or “in awe.” One veteran said he couldn’t stop listening to it – the songs touched him in ways he could not describe.
To be Continued…
In our next post, learn how Tunnel Rats Music came to be. How having like-minded and supportive people like Robin Daniel and Libby Wilson helped Sid move forward to write and produce the second CD – Vietnam: The Journey Continues.M
The lyrics of the Tunnel Rats song, “You’re Not Alone” came alive as I read the story of a Vietnam Vet who shared his story of pain, and loss of hope, that almost ended in tragedy.
Reflections on “Twenty Veterans Will Commit Suicide Today, or Will They?”
If you talk to enough veterans you will soon understand that although every war is different, all veterans returning home from combat face challenges that the rest of us, the protected, will never understand. Even combat veterans from different wars can find it difficult to relate to each other.
With more than 2.7 million American servicemen serving in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam veterans who have now reached retirement age, are beginning to shed light on their war and the challenges they faced coming home, many of which they continue to face today. Of the unique challenges faced by Vietnam vets, one of the most tragic themes emerging from these warriors is that they carry intense feelings of shame, and a strong sense of being alone, which manifests itself in isolation, and too often, suicide.
War is Hell, so is the Vietnam Veteran’s Experience really Unique?
One answer lies in an important difference in the United States training and deployment policy during Vietnam:
In many ways, the word “alone” best describes the plight of the American soldiers sent overseas a half-century ago to fight in Southeast Asia. They were sent to battle alone and they came home alone where some sought solitude from society. Those factors led to the psychological health issues some Vietnam-era veterans still face today.
While some soldiers enlisted, others were drafted to serve yearlong tours. The United States also did something it had never done before, called the individual rotation policy. Unlike previous conflicts where soldiers were trained and deployed together as units, during Vietnam, troops were sent overseas one-by-one and added to existing units. There were numerous reasons for the policy, but according to Jeffrey Heider, a psychologist in Kalispell who has worked with veterans for more than 30 years, one theory was that rotating soldiers on yearlong tours would lessen their exposure to the horrors of war.
But in some ways, it may have made it worse. New soldiers were frequently outcast by the rest of the unit because of their inexperience. Heider added that after seeing friends die, some soldiers would isolate themselves.
Brian Scott Sherman, of Belleville, IL, shared his story of pain, and loss of hope, that almost ended in tragedy. He has one request:
I encourage sharing my testimony with as many media outlets as humanly possible, because the word has to get out that the Men and Women who have or are protecting our way of life are truly hurting and need help now NOT tomorrow, because for 22 veterans it will be too late.
When Libby Wilson and I began working with Sid Orr on his 2nd CD, Vietnam: The Journey Continues, we found that our understanding of the Vietnam War, and the veteran’s experience, was limited and inaccurate. As we immersed ourselves in the songs, we had long and difficult conversations. We are eternally thankful to Sid who was willing to walk us through that time with him. We learned that every war is unique, and no one comes home unharmed.
While we were collaborating on the songs, we met an amazing woman, Sanfora DiMola, at her home in Ellijay, Georgia, where we sat in her den and talked for hours. Sanfora was a nurse working with the first Vietnam veterans coming home in 1965. She told us about her “warriors” and the groundbreaking work on PTSD they spearheaded. She shared her experiences as she shaped her career around helping these veterans. As we prepared to leave, we asked, “If you could give one message to the Vietnam veterans and their families, what would it be?” She said “There is hope, and you are not alone.”
After completing the other songs on the CD, we began writing “You’re Not Alone!” We had pages and pages of thoughts, emotions, messages. We tapped into Sid’s and other Vietnam Veterans’ memories of coming home. Unlike any other group of veterans in history, the Vietnam Veterans came home to a country that was angry, and many took out their anger on the returning Vets. They suffered in silence for many years. It wasn’t until many years later Sid remembers walking in a Veteran’s Day parade in the 1990’s, 20 years after returning home, and a woman on a street corner mouthed the words “Thank you. Welcome home.” It was then he realized this was the first time he been welcomed home from Vietnam.
With so much we wanted to express, we struggled with the song for weeks. Then one day it just happened. Sid said, “We are writing this for the warriors,” and distilled the totality of feelings and messages into “You’re Not Alone” ending with “