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Woodturning News: General News

FAIRFAX COUNTY TIMES: Local Vietnam War veteran reveals ugliness of war (09/29/2017)

Friday, September 29, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kim Rymer
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George Jones III bent over a hand-cranked lathe as he concentrated on shaping and smoothing out the bowl, wood shavings falling onto the machine and the floor below.

His woodturning – a craft where blocks of wood are rotated on a tool called a lathe and fashioned into objects – prevented him from hearing the ring of his house’s doorbell.

“It’s my therapy,” Jones explained after apologizing for his delay in answering the front door.

The products of his therapy, mostly bowls and some sculptures, can be found in stacks around the basement of his home in Vienna.

A veteran of the U.S. Army, Jones served two tours in Vietnam during the war. Woodturning helps him release stress and deal with the trauma that still lingers decades later.

When at the lathe, he wears a blue jacket bearing several sewn-on patches, including one of an American flag and another from the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).

As a member of the board of directors for the local VVA Chapter 227, Jones was invited by public broadcaster WETA to participate in a member screening and panel discussion centered on The Vietnam War, an 18-hour documentary series by famed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that concluded on Thursday.

Scheduled to take place on Sept. 27 at WETA’s Arlington headquarters, the panel featured Jones, journalist Kim O’Connell, and former Army officer Rufus Phillips, who wrote the book Why Vietnam Matters: An Eyewitness Account of Lessons Not Learned.

The Vietnam War aired on PBS in 10 parts across two weeks. Delving into the North Vietnamese perspective as well as the points of view of South Vietnam and the U.S., it examined the 20-year-long, much-debated conflict in expansive detail, touching on everything from the political machinations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s administrations to the war’s connection to domestic race and class issues.

Even as a veteran of the war, Jones says that the documentary gave him a better understanding of the historical context that resulted in the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam and the complicated reality behind the propaganda used to sell the war to the American public.

“I’ve learned a lot from this,” Jones said. “I didn’t know all of this information about the French and the different things that were done where we were so close to settling that thing, but I think big business got in the way. Corruption got in the way …And it does make you angry in a sense, because you had friends hurt and killed over there and guys right now who don’t want to talk about it, will not talk about it.”

Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., Jones enlisted in the Army right out of high school in July 1966 and went through basic training at Fort Bragg.

As a black man in a city that was still largely segregated, Jones decided to volunteer for the military partly because he saw few opportunities available to him in North Carolina at the time, but he also believed the Cold War-era, patriotic justifications for sending American troops to a country on the other side of the world.

“This is what we were being fed, and this is what you had to go by, is that the Communists were going to take over South Vietnam,” Jones said. “We were there to help save these people and fight back communism, not knowing that we were really getting into the middle of a civil war.”

Like many of his compatriots, Jones enlisted in the military with visions of heroism and valor, all fueled by a desire to serve his country, but he was initially forced to put those dreams on hold.

After finishing basic combat training, Jones went to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, to train as a combat medic.

While the majority of his graduating class was sent directly to Vietnam, Jones was stationed in Germany, where he continued his studies and worked briefly as an x-ray technician. He still felt the allure of combat, though, so he volunteered to transfer to Vietnam in 1967.

Upon arriving in Vietnam, Jones found a country that, like most other soldiers, he knew little about beyond what he saw in the news, describing the former French colony as a “beautiful” place devastated by fighting and regular air bombings.

Jones was assigned to the 25th infantry. He recalls hearing people dying and screaming for a medic while at a base camp that was overrun by Viet Cong fighters around the time of the Tet Offensive in 1968.

“You go out to help do what you need to do,” Jones said of his role as a medic. “Being out in the field, treating a guy who’d just had his foot blown off, it was brutal. It’s not as glamorous as what you see on TV…It’s ugly, it’s brutal, and I think it sort of stamps everybody involved forever.”

Jones completed his tour of duty later that year and was honorably discharged from the Army in 1969.

However, the North Carolina that Jones returned to was, in many ways, not all that different from the state that he left.

When he applied for a job at a newspaper company, Jones saw the position go to a white man who was only 17 or 18 years old and had no military service to his name.

He tried his hand at factory work, taking jobs with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and Hanes Hosiery, but it was unfulfilling after experiencing the world outside his modest hometown.

“Once I left North Carolina and got to see other things and other people, how people act outside the South, I wanted to do something a little bit better for me,” Jones said.

Jones reenlisted in the Army 90 days after returning to North Carolina, and after a stint at Fort Dix in New Jersey, he volunteered to go back to Vietnam, where he served a second tour in 1970.

Upon the completion of that tour, Jones was stationed at Fort Devens in Massachusetts for three months before being reassigned to Fort Belvoir, which is how he came to reside in Northern Virginia.

At the age of 27, Jones was diagnosed with renal cell cancer and underwent kidney surgery on Aug. 9, 1974, the same day that then-President Richard Nixon resigned.

The loss of a kidney meant that Jones could never return to combat and generally limited his prospects in the military, so he ultimately opted to medically retire, meaning that the Army had determined his disability was severe enough that he could retire as if he had served a full 20 years of service.

As a medic, Jones says that his transition into civilian life was relatively smooth. While at Fort Belvoir, he worked for two years as a part-time x-ray technician at Inova Alexandria Hospital, and after retiring from the military, he got a full-time job at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

Jones retired about 18 months ago after working at the Virginia Hospital Center for 38 years. He has been married for 42 years with a son who served in the Marines during the First Gulf War and a daughter.

Many Vietnam War veterans were not as fortunate, though.

The skills that soldiers learn in the military do not always translate to civilian work, but Vietnam War veterans faced the added hurdle of having fought in a conflict that triggered a national anti-war movement and ended in disillusionment and bitterness.

“There was really nobody there for us at all,” Jones said of the homecoming reception that Vietnam War veterans got. “That’s why most of the vets will tell you today they never really talked about it, because you were always looked down upon.”

Through his work with VVA Chapter 227 and his participation on WETA’s The Vietnam War panel, Jones hopes to help encourage his fellow veterans to talk about their experiences in order to broaden the general public’s understanding of war beyond the glamorous, exciting depictions frequently promoted by pop culture.

“War is really nasty, and it has an everlasting impression,” Jones said.

 

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