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Military enthusiasts re-enact the Vietnam War

The dirt paths that lead to Alpha Company's field headquarters are lined with overgrown grass and weeds. A canvas tent is protected by machine guns, sandbags and Army-green storage boxes.
Re enacting Vietnam
Tom Gray, of Altoona, Pa., yells to his fellow soldiers as he portrays an American soldier during the Vietnam War. The re-enactment was on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, Pa. Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The dirt paths that lead to Alpha Company's field headquarters are lined with overgrown grass and weeds. A canvas tent is protected by machine guns, sandbags and Army-green storage boxes. And lurking somewhere outside is the enemy: the Viet Cong.

But these aren't the jungles of southeast Asia, just the woods of small-town Pennsylvania, where 40 years after the fall of Saigon, military enthusiasts are beginning to re-enact the Vietnam War.

For decades, re-enactors have played out key events in the Revolutionary or Civil wars. Now they are illustrating one of the nation's most controversial conflicts — and paying tribute to veterans.

"We do it to honor these guys and to tell them, 'You weren't forgotten,' to tell them it wasn't always negative," said Tom Gray, 47, of Altoona, who played a platoon leader at the encampment outside the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, about 120 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Vietnam re-enactors have no national organization, but participants say Vietnam War groups are popping up around the country. Events were staged earlier this year in Houston and Jackson, Miss. Fort Harrison State Park in Indiana held a Vietnam-era "tactical demonstration" last month.

Wilbur Smith, a 61-year-old postal worker, was among the 100 or so first-day visitors at the Boalsburg bivouac. That's a fraction of the thousands who are drawn to the annual Gettysburg re-enactment each summer.

"What they're doing here is absolutely great," said Smith, who lives in Mount Union, about 50 miles west of Harrisburg, and spent a year in Vietnam as an Army sergeant in 1968-69.

"I think for a long time with Vietnam, we tried to push that out of our history, that it didn't happen, so I think this is a good thing."

Veterans approve
Museum educator Joe Horvath, a Navy veteran himself from the early 1980s, helped organize the first bivouac two years ago. Horvath said he was initially wary of the reaction the event might receive from veterans, but the response has been so positive that a second day was added to the schedule this year.

On a recent summer morning, Horvath darted around the grounds to help set the scene: Speakers needed hooking up to blare period recordings of Armed Forces musical and news broadcasts; the medical and operations tents needed organizing; and signs needed to be posted.

"Caution! Bad Guys Ahead!" read one sign posted on an overgrown path that would be used by a Vietnam patrol led by Gray — the highlight of the afternoon.

A business owner by day, Gray looked the part of a platoon sergeant. He was dressed in fatigues, smoke grenades hanging from his body, and carrying a sidearm and bayonet strapped to his legs.

The mission: a long-range patrol into the "jungle" path to gather intelligence on the enemy. About 80 onlookers watched from the clearing as the patrol entered the woods. The crowd listened as dispatches from a civilian narrator and Gray were transmitted over speakers.

"Vietnam was a different war, a guerrilla war," Horvath told them. "Once you entered, everywhere around you was a killing zone."

Cell phone doubles as radio
Gray and his men remain quiet once the patrol starts, though they cannot control the sounds of laughing children at a museum picnic area beyond the trees.

Six minutes later, gunfire erupts.

"How many?" Gray shouts. The soldier on point spots three "enemy fighters" — though those re-enactors cannot be seen from beyond the thicket of brush and woods.

Some of Gray's men fire back as the rest of the platoon kneels, shielded by the maze of trees and undergrowth.

"White 1, White 1, this is Red 6," Gray yells into a cell phone that doubles as the radio after their actual radio broke down just before the patrol. "Enemy contact, enemy contact. Small amount."

Gray orders his soldiers to turn back before another exchange of gunfire. After 15 minutes, the patrol is over. Gray's group is short a couple re-enactors, so they cancel a scene in which a soldier gets wounded and must be treated in the field.

Visitor Linda Rosser, 55, of Altoona, got the point.

"I probably wish there was a little bit more action, but you felt as though you were right there. Once you listened to the communications, and then you heard it ... it was reality," Rosser said.

Vietnam veteran Richard Dunkle, 62, made the short trip from his Boalsburg home and explained that the negative feelings directed toward soldiers have eased to the point where he felt comfortable four years ago to start wearing his own "Vietnam Veterans" hat.

"It was time for us to be proud of what were called on to do, even though it turned out to be a very unpopular thing," said Dunkle, who also spent a year during 1968-69 in Vietnam as an aviation electronics specialist for the Army.

From 20 to 60 years old
The re-enactors ranged in age from their mid-20s to early 60s, including one man who served in Vietnam.

Ryan Rentschler, 25, of New London, Pa., helps organize a Vietnam event at Fort Mifflin in Philadelphia, including a USO-type tribute show with a Christmas 1969 theme.

Rentschler grew up listening to stories told by his father, who served during the war in the Air Force, as well as several teachers who were Vietnam vets.

"Vietnam is a whole different animal," Rentschler wrote in an e-mail. "We don't do this to shoot a lot or play army. We do this to honor vets who didn't get the welcome home they deserved."

Vietnamese re-enactors largely hidden
At least one group of re-enactors specialize in playing the North Vietnamese.

"We are a group of serious military living historians who portray the communist side during the Vietnam War," reads a disclaimer on the group's Web site. "We are NOT communists, Marxist, anti-American, or support/condone that ideology."

Another large event in Newville, about 30 miles west of Harrisburg, consists of war games that are not open to the general public because they do not offer much to watch.

"If done historically accurately, you never see anybody," Patrick Hubble, 40, a mortician from Lynchburg, Va., said in a phone interview. He helps organize the enemy re-enactors.

Back in Boalsburg, Smith approved of the mock patrol — even though the firefight was no comparison to the deadly battles of 1968. He planned to return next year and check out other commemorations in the region.

The re-enactments can "help people forget the pain even. To hide it, it stays in here," Smith said, pointing a finger to his chest. "That's hard. I think this is good."