His father graduated from West Point in 1930; his brother in 1955. Ross Lewis is proud to be the product of a West Point family. He, too, is a soldier of the United States of America having served in the U.S. Army from 1966 to 1968 during which time he served as a Signal Corp platoon leader near the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea from 1967 to 1968. “Since then,” said Ross, “there has not been a day in my life that I have not thought about my time in Korea. For me it was a defining experience at a young age. It has grown, over the years, to galvanize my love for the United States and the privilege it was for me to serve my country.”
Ross Lewis passed through Blanco County in April of this year and spent some time at the home of Gene and LaVada Triesch on the banks of the beautiful Blanco River. Gene and Ross were stationed together in South Korea with the 7th Infantry Division. For Gene and LaVada he signed a book that he has published entitled, “Welcome Home/A Monument of Honor” that pays tribute to the Vietnam Veteran. “It is not a book about the Vietnam War, nor the politics, nor the ‘rights or wrongs’ of the decisions and strategies which were made regarding the United States’ involvement in Southeast Asia. Instead, Welcome Home/A Monument of Honor is about the fabric of the American military people, ordinary citizens who served our country as best they could.
“They came from every corner of America: big cities, small towns, urban and rural surroundings. They grew up as dreamers, athletes, scouts, and builders of model airplanes. No matter where they were born, they all had common bonding qualities. They had hearts. They had families. They had fears. They were young men and women of fiber, feelings, apprehensions, valor and dedication.
“Many had no defined direction in their lives. Others had personal ‘blueprints’ for success. Most had little understanding of the Vietnam War. Others were eager to fight Communism. And still others were simply dutifully following orders which placed them in an unknown land, foreign to anything they had ever known and experienced. Yet, the substance and ever-present bond for all of them remained: they were dedicated human beings who, despite their many varied opinions and points of view, felt a sense of loyalty to our country and ‘gave it their all’ while serving in Vietnam.”
A couple of years ago in the Blanco Historic Cemetery, a simple ceremony was held to honor our American veterans. In attendance were men and women who had served in World II, Korea, the Middle East, Bosnia and Vietnam. When the program ended, a veteran of Vietnam approached the organizers and, with a tear in his eye, thanked them. “Do you realize that that was the first time since I returned from Vietnam that I have been recognized for my service?”
Because Vietnam was, and still is to some extent, an unpopular war, those who served there, instead of returning to heroes’ welcomes, have often been vilified as “the bad guys.” Ross Lewis set out to rectify some misconceptions.
After his military service, Ross travelled the world as a professional photographer. In 1993 he developed the Special Eyes on the Environment or “SEE” program for children with disabilities. These special youngsters came from both public and private schools and most had multiple disabilities. The children were provided cameras and rolls of film and embarked on field trips during which they were to take pictures of “the beauty and the blemishes that you see.” Without any further instructions they took the pictures. “I would just stand back and provide the film,” said Ross.
“You would not believe the black and white photos! They were as if they had been taken by semi-professionals. The SEE program became an instrument for building self-esteem and confidence. We exhibited the pictures extensively for the public and they attracted the attention of civic and educational leaders and public figures. The kids presented without any fear and they would speak about their love for the beauties of God’s world and of the damage being perpetuated upon it. There were no disabilities there!”
From that humble beginning came the inspiration for Ross Lewis’ book. Most of the men and women who served in Vietnam carried cameras. “The essence of photography,” says Ross “is spiritual. It’s about your connection with the outside world and the spirit of the people. It’s like music, it comes from within.”
“This book is constructed around the personal, sensitive, non-combat photographs of the soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen during their moments of pause in their often-dangerous missions. Their wonderful lasting images were not just ‘passing accidents’ from unskilled photographers. On the contrary, their poignant, decisive moments of concentration captured a detailed tapestry of Vietnam during the 1960’s and 70’s. Their soft, gentle images reveal their inner souls which were always present despite the circumstances.
“Perhaps it would be a quiet moment in a beautiful landscape or village. Or it could be a picture of a child who gazed into the soldier’s lens without hesitation or fear. Conversely, it could be a photograph of the horror of the aftermath of battle, or a moment of exhausted rest in the ever-threatening jungle. These photographs are the subtle, yet powerful untold stories of the Vietnam War, which graphically communicate the hearts of the people who served there. The pictures, in concert with the veterans’ biographies, define the profound humanity of these Americans.”
Mr. Lewis was sure that “the photographs of the gentle souls of our soldiers and sailors and airmen” were lodged in attics, basements and garages throughout the United States. “Traveling 20,000 miles through 14 states, from Massachusetts to Arkansas,” said Lewis, “I have had the extreme privilege to personally visit, interview and collect the photographs of 62 veterans, of which 29 are featured in this book.” Every story told in the book is unique. Some stories recount the personal horrors of the men who faced death at every minute. Other stories speak of those who were in less dangerous, yet ever-challenging environments which had a lasting impact upon their lives. Each of the stories reflects the essence which exists within all human beings.
The real story, according to Ross Lewis, is that they were just “regular guys from cities and towns all over this country. Not that they believed in the cause, but that they believed in our country. The real truth about who they really are came out of the pictures taken by those boys. They are reflections of their souls.”
“This country needs a profound healing,” said Mr. Lewis. “When the Vietnam veterans came back, they were scorned—like a mother rejecting her sons and telling them they’re bad. Some said that they have never forgotten being scorned when they came home. However, their amateurish pictures show their true hearts and who they really are.” When interviewed by Mr. Lewis, seventy percent of them broke down in tears, saying they never before had the confidence or felt they had the right to tell their stories. They each expressed their appreciation for what Mr. Lewis was doing.
The final account in the book was given by Randy Smith of the U.S. Marine Corps. He participated in the final, never-forgotten, historic episode of the Vietnam War in April of 1975. He was assigned to protect the American Embassy in Saigon and played a major role in the final helicopter evacuation from that embassy. “I really don’t remember eating or sleeping the last forty-eight hours or so in Saigon. I was operating on sheer instincts and using my Marine Corps training to get the job done at all costs. Many thousands of lives depended on getting on those choppers and getting as far away from the onslaught of Communism as possible. It was paramount to all those locals, whose lives had been intertwined with the American presence for the past ten thousand days, to get out…to get out at all costs.
“It was my responsibility to let pre-assembled groups go to the incoming choppers. I was in total charge of that gate and I heard a lot of pleading: ‘Marine You Let Me Go Now!’ Most realized by this time they would be one of the lucky ones who would get out alive. But even the shortest wait for the next chopper was like an eternity. They wanted out now! I played no favorites and everyone got the exact same treatment: stern but fair! As I look back I realize I became hardened that day. I felt like I lost my last remaining glimmer of innocence.
“So why was I the one who decided who got out…who lived and who didn’t? That’s a heavy burden! Only God should decide who lives and who dies! And for a young 19-year old person to have that responsibility is pretty tough.” Perhaps Randy Smith’s Vietnam Moment was also America’s Vietnam Moment.
On the back cover of Ross Lewis’ book is a reproduction of a poster drawn by a South Vietnamese Child that says, “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
(For more information about Welcome Home/A Monument of Honor by Ross Lewis, and to see some of the photographs, go to www.welcomemonument.com or email Mr. Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Books may be ordered from the above website or from Amazon.com)