Sounds from a helicopter greet visitors as they approach. A glance upward shows nothing in the sky. The helicopter gets louder, as if moving in closer. There’s still no sign of anything in the air. Then, images of a watchtower, an ambulance and a military chopper come into view just beyond the barbed-wire fence ahead. A sign at the far corner reads, “U.S. Naval Support Base Somewhere in Southeast Asia.”
This is “The Vietnam Experience,” a 3-acre outdoor, interactive exhibit at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum near Charleston. It was created to help honor those who served, but those behind the exhibit are discovering it is doing much more than that – it’s also helping some of them heal.
The exhibit opened late last year to coincide with this year’s 50th anniversary marking the start of the Vietnam War. The conflict was a divisive war that claimed the lives of more than 58,000 servicemen.
“Of course, the war lasted more than 13 years, so any year during the next 13 years is the 50th anniversary,” said Mac Burdette, executive director of Patriots Point. “We looked at that and said it’s time we stood up and did something to honor the veterans.”
Patriots Point joined forces with the Department of Defense and began designing the exhibit with the goal to make it as historically accurate as possible. With the help of the Navy, organizers brought in helicopters, military vehicles, a 105-mm howitzer, an M42 duster and one of only two remaining MK1 River Patrol Boats in existence. The boat sits in a lagoon looking as though it’s in a tributary of the Mekong Delta.
They built structures similar to those you’d see on a military base in Vietnam: a bunker, a mess hall, a small hospital, etc. The “Vietnam Experience” was patterned after a “Brown Water Navy” support base and a Marine Corps Artillery fire base, and is set up just as it would have been in 1968 just before the Tet Offensive. Many of the artifacts, like the Ch-46 helicopter, were actually used in Vietnam.
After putting the military hardware and buildings in place, Patriots Point added sound effects. Burdette said the sounds that came out of Vietnam were unique to that war and critical in adding a level of realism.
“You hear helicopters, you hear jets flying over, you hear military rounds going off,” he said. “That’s not something you typically hear at a museum. That’s a unique aspect of using technology to bring life to an exhibit.”
In fact, those sounds from the Vietnam War continue to affect many veterans today. Counselors at Veterans Administration hospitals around the country who treat patients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) say sounds similar to what vets were exposed to during the war often act as triggers.
“For a combat veteran, those sounds mean something to them,” Charleston VA counselor Alan Pinnell said. “It can cause their heart to race, it may cause them to hyperventilate, and it can actually cause physical changes to their bodies.”
Pinnell said many who returned home from Vietnam after the war went right back to work, began raising families and coped with, or masked, their symptoms in a number of ways. Then, decades later when they retired, they began experiencing what he calls “a tsunami of emotions” about things they never thought they’d experience again. So, late in life, they began turning to the VA for counseling.
Shortly after “The Vietnam Experience” opened, the Charleston VA and the Medical University of South Carolina began using the exhibit to help treat patients with PTSD.
“I’ve taken three groups down there,” Pinnell said. “Each time, they were able to re-experience some of what they experienced before, but in a safe manner. It’s been a very powerful tool to use.”
He noted that some veterans had a difficult time on the first visit.
“I’ve taken a few folks through it twice, and the second time was much better because they knew it was just sound, and their triggers didn’t have the same response that it had before,” Pinnell said.
He plans to take more veterans through it in the future.
For others, the exhibit simply provides a place to come and reflect. Bob Ritz of Murrells Inlet served in Vietnam with the Army in 1967 and 1968.
“I really thought it captured it,” Ritz said. “You go through, you hear the sounds, you see it. It brings it back. I think it’s a healing thing that you can go in and see that.”
Charlie Werder, who was in Vietnam with the Army in 1968 and 1969, and also lives in Murrells Inlet, believes there’s value for veterans in having exhibits like this one.
“I think it gives them time to reflect on what happened and maybe a chance to heal,” he said.
For some, healing may come in sharing some of their own stories, although that isn’t always easy. Since the outdoor museum opened, however, a number of veterans have come forward and shared their own experiences from the war, including some that happened in one of the three Vietnam-era helicopters on site.
Patriots Point recently held a dedication ceremony to pay tribute to a young man who died in action in one of the helicopters in Vietnam in 1968. Army Specialist Four Kenneth Plavcan of Ohio was only 21 years old. Visitors can now hear his story – gathered from family, friends and military leaders who knew him – by pushing a button on that helicopter.
“We’re starting to look at artifacts in that respect,” Burdette said. “They’re not just pieces of metal held together by rivets and bolts. Their story is the human context of the men who served in these helicopters. Who were they? What happened to them? Whose son was it, whose sister, whose brother?”
As it turns out, there were a number of soldiers on patrol on the ground north of Saigon the day Plavcan was killed. The helicopter swooped in to neutralize an ambush and ended up saving many of them. Burdette said he looks forward to the day one of those soldiers comes to the exhibit and realizes Plavcan may have saved his life. That will be another chapter in the story.
If you go
What | Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum
Where | 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant
Hours | 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily
Cost | Adults (12+), $20; seniors (62+), $17; active-duty military with ID, $17; active-duty military in uniform, free; kids (6-11), $12; kids under 6 with adult ticket, free. Some tickets may be purchased online. One ticket allows admittance to all museums including “The Vietnam Experience.”
Details | Also home to the USS Yorktown, USS Laffey and the Medal of Honor Museum. Symposiums that will highlight various aspects of U.S. military efforts during the Vietnam War also are being planned.
Contact | 843-884-2727, patriotspoint.org