Remembering those who died in Vietnam and giving thanks for changing perceptions

By Peder Schaefer, Buffalo Bulletin, Via Wyoming News Exchange

BUFFALO — For more than 50 years, Dave Harness called his mother. He called her on December 7, when they last saw Tony, smiling for the camera and wearing his U.S. Army dress greens as he left Kalispell, Montana.


He called her on February 22, Tony's birthday, when he might have gone out into the woods to hunt or fish.


And, finally, he always called on March 29, the day Tony died in Vietnam.


“My mother was really never the same,” said Harness, sitting in Buffalo over five decades later, a picture of his late brother displayed on a shelf. "There wasn't one call in those 53 years that she didn't cry." 


Fifty years ago this March, the last combat troops left Vietnam. 


As Memorial Day approaches, veterans of the war in Vietnam and next of kin of those killed are remembering those who lost their lives in the conflict and reflecting on the huge changes in how veterans are celebrated and honored in the United States.


“There was so much animosity toward the war,” said Doug Brothers, the commander of VFW Post 4969 in Buffalo and a former Vietnam veteran. “And the mistake America made was putting the animosity on the veterans, rather than the politicians who got us there.”


“In general, the treatment was terrible,” said Pat Eastes, a longtime Buffalo resident and former helicopter pilot with the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division, D Troop, who lost a number of friends from his unit during the Vietnam War. "That's what's so nice about seeing how it's going now. When people come back, they are welcomed back as heroes.”


A hunter, artist and son


Tony Harness was Dave Harness' older brother. They grew up together — two of four boys — in the small mountain town of Kalispell, near the entrance to Glacier National Park in northwest Montana.


“He and I were close,” Harness said. “My brother was one of the funniest guys I've ever known. He had a great wit, but it was really, really dry humor. He would say something that would crack everybody up, but he wouldn't change expressions.”


Harness remembers the time that Tony took a duck out of the sky with an outrageous shot, and when, as a budding artist, he carved an elaborate dog out of a ball of snow.


Friends who posted on Tony's page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund remember him boxing in the Police Athletic League in town. 


Sharon Anderson Snyder, a childhood acquaintance of Tony, remembers him clearing the path for her to see some animals when she was only a child and Tony was in eighth grade.


“I thought you seemed like a guardian angel,” she wrote.


After graduating from Flathead High School, Tony went off to college. 


After one year he decided to join the U.S. Army in 1968. He considered joining the Green Berets but changed course and joined the infantry as a forward observer. 


"He could have had his 2-S deferment and decided to stay in college, but he and his best friend decided they were going to go off and save the world," Harness said, referring to the common draft deferment for college study. "It's just one of those things that teenage boys do, I guess.”


Tony dreamed of being a taxidermist and planned on coming back to Montana after the war.


A ‘deplorable’ welcome home


On March 29, 1969, enemy mortar fire killed Tony in Binh Duong province, in southern Vietnam. He was 21 years old.


Cookies and beef jerky that the Harness family had sent to Tony just before his death were returned unopened.


It took two weeks for Tony's body to return to Montana, and when his casket came off the plane, it wasn't to a warm welcome.


“Those young men had protesters waiting for them,” Harness said of the caskets coming off the plane. “They actually spit on the caskets. And young soldiers coming home from Vietnam, they would get spit on. I find that deplorable.”


Harness said that he was furious and wanted to enlist to get revenge, but his dad wouldn't let him. Harness ended up getting a good draft number and was never called to serve in the war.


But he remembers the way his brother was treated, and he reflected on the huge difference in how veterans are received now versus then.


“It was a different story in the Vietnam War," Harness said. “There was a faction against the war and against those people who participated. Most of those young men didn't want to be there. They wanted to be home …, but those young men did it. And 58,000 of them didn't come back, my brother being one of those.”


Power of Vietnam Veterans Memorial


Harness has been to see his brother's name at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There, on a vast wall of black stone, the names of the 58,000 people who lost their lives in the Vietnam War are engraved. He spoke about the power of seeing Tony's name on the wall and the huge “snowball effect” of the millions of families and friends impacted.


"It's a big number, but when you go to that wall and stand there and walk and just see name after name after name after name, it's just heartbreaking, and you think about the kids,” Harness said.


Brothers, the commander of the VFW Post in Buffalo and a Vietnam veteran himself, also spoke to the power of the memorial. He fought in Vietnam during 1970 as a combat tracker, working with dogs to follow the enemy.


"It was very difficult for me to control my emotions as I walked the length of that, all the way down, and all the names of my friends who are on there, who never made it to 21, and here I am still on the earth after all these years,” he said.


Brothers got home from Vietnam on Christmas Day 1970, returning to his hometown in Knox County, Tennessee. He said coming home was like “coming back to the world.” But when he got home, Brothers said, he also felt animosity.


“I found out when I got home I was perceived as someone you should keep an eye on,” Brothers said. He said it was sometimes difficult to get a job or to shake the stereotypes created by the “twisted minds of Hollywood producers.”


“This is what we dealt with, and it went on for a lot of years, to the point I wouldn't tell anybody I went to Vietnam," he said.


Still, he said that the public's perception of veterans has changed tremendously since he went to war and that veterans are now treated much better than before.


Harness agreed, saying that while there was little difference between the young people going to fight in Vietnam and those fighting in America's wars today, there has been a tremendous difference in how people are treated when they come home.


“Young men that are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan even in training, they are there for our protection and our freedom, and they need to be treated like heroes” he said.


Harness' mother died last year. He said she eventually learned to laugh again, but life was never the same after Tony died.


"He never got to have kids; he never got to be married," he said. "War is a harsh reality."


This story was published on May 25, 2023.



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