The National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has created a Vietnam War exhibit as part of its Cold War gallery which is proving to be popular with Vietnam veterans and their families. The museum, which opened on Nov. 11, 2020, encapsulates the entire history of the U.S. Army in a 185,000-square-foot space with displays that emphasize the personal experiences of the men and women who have served. The museum staff combined artifacts, war-related objects, digital displays, cast models and pylons with biographical information of individual service members to create an experience that accurately documents the Vietnam War and brings to life many of its forgotten aspects.
“They [veterans] connect not only with the big things but also with the little things,” said chief of exhibits Paul Morando. “The feedback we’re getting is about the attention to detail.”
The museum’s Vietnam section “brings back so many memories,” said retired Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz, president of the U.S. Army Historical Foundation. Schultz, a former director of the U.S. Army National Guard, has said that his perspectives as a soldier were forged in Vietnam, where he served as a platoon leader in 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, and later as a scout platoon leader. His numerous military awards include the Silver Star and two Purple Hearts.
Schultz appreciates the care and meticulousness with which the museum staff designed the Vietnam displays. “We talk to Vietnam vets all the time,” he said. “They all identify with the pieces of equipment that they carried. It’s personal for everybody.”
Schultz, an Iowa native, reported to his unit in Vietnam in April 1969. He was a self-described “brand-new soldier.” Although it takes a “short while to prove your worth” to an infantry platoon in combat, Schultz said, the men of his new platoon were ready to bond with him, which he will never forget. “From the day I arrived in my first platoon assignment, that platoon just adopted me,” he said. “They didn’t know me from anybody,” he said. “But I was their lieutenant, and they adopted me instantly—I mean, within a day. It was clear to me that they wanted to keep me alive as much as I wanted to keep them alive while performing our missions. It was really clear.”
Hopscotching across the country in a mechanized infantry unit, Schultz covered a lot of terrain during his tour, including in areas north and west of Cu Chi and across Tay Ninh province between Saigon and Cambodia. One feature of the terrain that looms large in his memories is the extinct volcano Nui Ba Den, the “Black Virgin Mountain.” Rising more than 3,200 feet from a flat landscape, the lonely peak is an ancient shrine steeped in spiritualism and tragic legend. It is veiled by cold, impenetrable fog at nightfall, and visibility on its slopes was reduced to zero in darkness, reported Stars and Stripes in 1969. A mere 18 miles from Cambodia, the eerie mountain became even more ominous in wartime due to its proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where guerrilla activity was always a danger.
Schultz’s survival largely depended on his ability to learn fast in the field. “I was in combat the first mission, the first day,” he said, recalling his brush with the enemy in the small rural district of Dau Tieng. “We did the complete range of missions, from convoy security to defensive operations to offensive operations.”
Telephone calls to family were nonexistent, and care packages from back home were “a lifeline.” What really stands out to Schultz from those hard times are the soldiers he served with. “I was in a rifle platoon,” he said. “The soldiers around one another are the strength of those units. When you get in combat, you’re depending on every soldier in that unit to look after soldiers in their squads or in their platoons. That’s what we did. The soldiers that I served with were phenomenal. They’d never quit. I’m proud of those kids. They were really something special.”
Schultz proudly recalls working side by side on missions with men of the South Vietnamese airborne forces. “It was fantastic,” he said. “They’re superb soldiers—I mean, really courageous.” The Vietnamese paratroopers flew from their base in Saigon on missions all over the country, Schultz said, yet their contributions are often overlooked. He also cherishes the memory of his best friend, Lt. Corbin Tindall, who served in the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) and was killed in Vietnam.
Thus, for Schultz, the museum’s Vietnam War gallery contains much more than just objects. It is a place where veterans’ experiences can be honored and shared openly. A particularly special spot for Vietnam veterans is the gallery’s large three-dimensional map fleshed out with terrain features. It has become a gathering point bringing veterans, their families and other visitors together.
“There are any number of stories about Vietnam vets who have talked to nobody,” Schultz said. “In many cases we don’t know of their stories. We’ve had Vietnam veterans come here and tell a story about where they were across this countryside who have never said anything to their wives or to their kids before. So, for the first time in their lives, they’re now explaining where they were in Vietnam. On this map.”
Schultz encourages fellow Vietnam veterans to visit the museum to gain a greater perspective of their service and sacrifices within the U.S. Army’s legacy as a whole. “We had an Army before we had a nation,” he points out. “It’s the selfless service, selfless duty of millions who have helped save this nation.” Veterans who visit the museum “will learn how their tour of duty fits into Army history and how it connects with others who served,” Schultz said. “It all relates. From the first to last gallery, a veteran’s story is embedded in all these places.”
Schultz also believes that veterans’ family members, civilians and those unfamiliar with the Vietnam War can gain a better understanding of the war from visiting the exhibit and the other sections of the museum as well. “The Army doesn’t send itself to war,” Schultz said. “Civilian leaders send us to war. People need to remember that.” V
This article appeared in the February 2022 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe and visit us on Facebook.