Time to Talk About It

Vietnam veterans bring their war stories to Flat Rock

“It helps to write about the experience,” says Stephen Henderson, left, pictured with John T. Hoffman and other local veterans in a meeting about an upcoming storytelling showcase.
Photo by Matt Rose

Stephen Henderson received no homecoming when he was medevacked to Jacksonville’s Camp Lejeune in 1970. Having spent the last year in Vietnam, the Marine Corps infantryman imagined his return would be met with congratulations, or at least deference. 

“But when you came home, you threw away your uniforms,” says Henderson, who lives in Fairview. “Civilians called us baby killers and spat on us. You just didn’t talk about Vietnam. No one was expecting that.”

Photo by Matt Rose

For the 45 years to follow, Henderson compartmentalized recollections of that sultry, oppressive jungle. He felt like an actor going through the motions of his varied career — from mayor of Woodfin in the ’90s to a grade-school bus driver — seldom discussing the acrid smell of Agent Orange, the purr of frag. 

Then he found prose. 

“To write about the experience helped,” Henderson remarks. Five years ago, he joined the NC Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation, a creative-writing group designed for Vietnam veterans by Dr. Bruce Kelly, assistant chief of primary care at the Charles George VA Medical Hospital in Asheville. With some coaxing — Henderson admits he thought it was “cockamamie” at first — he began facing, and sharing, the haunting realities of war. 

 In this AP photo, he is shown escorting Jane Fonda off a military base (photos used courtesy of Hoffman and Blue Ridge Honor Flight)

In August 2016, the group performed Brothers Like These, a compilation of narratives, at Asheville Community Theatre. They have since traveled as far as the Outer Banks and will partner this month with Blue Ridge Honor Flight — the local nonprofit that transports veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit memorial sites — to perform the program again, at Flat Rock Playhouse.

Alliance member John T. Hoffman of Black Mountain, a retired Army colonel, served in Vietnam from 1971 to 1972. Hoffman toured alongside his father for a stint and gained early notoriety for an AP photo that showed him arresting actress-turned-war-protestor Jane Fonda in May 1970. (Then a military police officer, Hoffman is shown escorting Fonda off the military base at Fort Hood.)

John T. Hoffman, now a retired colonel, served with his father in Vietnam.

In discussing life in a war zone, Hoffman notes the shock of an utterly foreign landscape: the heat, humidity, noxious smells. But he also unpacks the isolation of re-entering a civilian world. 

“We are communicating issues not of sorrow, but of life and death and survival,” Hoffman says. “There is a raw truth to our stories, and those truths inform history.” 

In their vividness, the veterans’ narratives humanize history, as well. Henderson’s “The Day Before I Left Home,” as published in the book Brothers Like These, describes the hours before his departure for Vietnam in evocative detail — the orange carpet of his grandfather’s home, the muddy water of the French Broad, the warm smell of breakfast. 

Practicing for the next NC Veterans Writing Alliance event.
Photo by Matt Rose

“I wrote colors and sounds, and it just flowed,” he says. But below the surface, the essay is a chilling reminder of relationships inflamed by distance and post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s not my favorite to read, honestly.”

In that way, the group’s storytelling style is unembellished. Hoffman says delivery is about “being here, looking at you, speaking.” Their unabashed authenticity doesn’t go unnoticed — each performance has warranted a standing ovation. 

“Most people never saw soldiers as human beings,” Henderson says. “The trainings teach you to take lives, but we still bear pain like everyone else.”

And after 45 years of feeling like the “other,” understanding is the only homecoming Henderson needs.  

The NC Veterans Writing Alliance Foundation and Blue Ridge Honor Flight present Brothers Like These: Vietnam Vets Perform Their Own Stories on Sunday, Feb. 9, at 2pm at Flat Rock Playhouse (2661 Greenville Hwy). Tickets will be sold at the box office starting at noon. The requested donation is $20 per ticket. For more information, see the “Brothers Like These” event page or the “Blue Ridge Honor Flight” page, both on Facebook; visit blueridgehonorflight.com; or call 828-388-4448.

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