Vietnam, then and now, takes its toll

Veterans group's play tells one man's tale of survival and guilt

May 26, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The young actor listens with reverent awe to the combat veteran describing an ambush in Vietnam.

"In the kill zone," John Pearson says, "you don't hear any birds, no bees, no insects. Nothing moves. Very strange. Literally - I don't know if it was imagination or not - it was like you smelled death. It has a very peculiar odor you can't describe."

Gbenga Idowu, 24, who graduated from UMBC's theater department last year, has sought out Pearson for help in creating the character of the troubled veteran he plays in Medal of Honor Rag, which the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 451 will present this weekend.

Medal of Honor Rag, which opens Friday, is hardly the conventional Memorial Day celebration of the courage, bravery and sacrifice of those who have died in the nation's wars. The play takes the form of a therapy session with a psychiatrist and a patient named Dale Jackson, or "D.J.," a Medal of Honor recipient wracked with survivor's guilt. In little more than an hour, the play touches on still-living issues from Vietnam, including an atrocity Jackson saw on his first day in country.

Baltimore's Howard Rollins Jr. attracted his first attention from critics as D.J. in a 1976 off-Broadway production that became a finalist in the Drama Desk Awards. Carl Randolph, an Equity actor whose roles have ranged from Dracula to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, will play the psychiatrist in Baltimore.

The play, by Tom Cole, closely follows the story of the short life and sad death of real Medal of Honor winner Dwight Johnson as it was told in a 1971 New York Times article by Jon Nordheimer, and even uses analysis records of an Army psychiatrist.

Johnson received his Medal of Honor from President Lyndon Johnson in November 1968, along with four other men, including a chaplain who became an antiwar protester. Dwight Johnson earned the medal in a burst of violence after very close friends were killed in an ambush in Vietnam. He died in another burst of violence 3 1/2 years later on the mean streets of Detroit. He was a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder before it was identified.

"It's a hard play to watch," says Jim Gerity, chair of the VVA chapter's Operation Remember, which will benefit from ticket sales. "And some veterans won't come because it's hard to watch."

Operation Remember is trying to find photos of the 1,046 Marylanders listed on the state's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. So far they have 847, mounted on a clubhouse wall.

"The play has references to Vietnam," Gerity says. "But it could be any war. It could be today's war. It could be Afghanistan. War is war. And when it's done, people have to deal with the emotional garbage. Or dump it.

"Johnson wasn't able to dump it. And really had no help to dump it."

A play for the public

The chapter's directors agreed to put on the play when they were approached by Benjamin Pohlmeier, the director of the independent Unmentionable Theatre company that is producing it. Pohlmeier and most company members graduated from UMBC's theater program.

"The board seems unanimous in that this is not a play for veterans. They already understand the issues," says Gerity, a Vietnam-era veteran who wasn't sent to Vietnam. "It's the public that needs to understand."

The play will be presented in the hall at the chapter clubhouse, which occupies what was the officer's club when Holabird Industrial Park was a Fort Holabird, a military base. The handsome stone building, and a depressing one that once housed the intelligence school, are the sole survivors from that time. It's an appropriate location for the play: Most of the 175,000 Marylanders who served in the armed forces during the Vietnam War were inducted at Fort Holabird.

Living history

Pearson talks to Idowu and Gerity in the hall. Over the big stone fireplace behind him is a shovel used to break ground for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It's engraved with the name Todd Mannion, a Baltimorean killed in action in 1966.

Pearson, 56, served about 10 months in Vietnam - until Feb. 1, 1968, when during the Tet Offensive he was blown out of a fighting position by a mortar round that killed two of his best friends, Arthur Melton and Sgt. Alonso Martin, whose wife had just had a baby. Pearson had multiple chest wounds, shrapnel inside his skull and myriad fragments that cut a nerve in his right arm.

"When they blew me out of the hole, the first thing I said was, `These SOBs done killed me,'" he says. He's a big man who sits with his arms folded over his chest. He runs a forklift for a living. He's wearing a baseball cap with the Screaming Eagle insignia of the 101st Airborne Division, his outfit in Vietnam, and a set of souvenir buttons.

"Then my head started to clear: `Wait a minute dead men don't talk. I'm holding Sergeant Martin in the hole and he's telling me he wants to see his baby and I'm hollering for a medic.'"

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