Don Unrau
Mike Moerkhe, from series 'War Stories', 1988

Dimensions
20 in H x 16 in W
Image Notes
Toned Gelatin Silver Print
Catalogue Number
1989.047
Current Location
1620-16B.28

Object Specific Text

SOAP

I volunteered for the draft. I knew I was going to be drafted anyway, so, when the Tet offensive was on the news constantly I went down to the Draft Board and volunteered. On 18 Mar 68 I became US 56 461 300 and did 8 weeks basic at Ft. Campbell. Ten weeks of AIT at Ft. Sam Houston and I became a Medic. They let me have a couple weeks of leave and then it was across the pond as a Cherry "Doc." So it goes.

I was sent to Chu Lai, American Div. LZ Bayonette, HHC 198th LIB. Being a brigade medic I was sent TDY anywhere a medic was needed. My first two-week assignment was to LZ Young, B Battery 1/14 Arty then on the Thein Phouc trail, a bad place. Was cherry no more.

Then I was sent to a place called "River Boat South." It was about 10 kliks south of Chu Lai on the corner of the South China Sea and the Song Tra Bong River. The MP's, boat drivers, and I patrolled the river in 16-foot whale boats with 75-horse Johnsons and M-60 mounted on a post in the bow. Days we generally stood down and nights we set up ambushes with 2 or our 3 boats. While I was there it was usually pretty quiet, and we didn't go looking for much trouble.

Practically every day I went down the hill to Med-CAP in one of our two villes, Hai Ninh or Son Tra. With 10 weeks training, Merk manual, PDR, M-79, and aid bag full of drugs I treated every medical problem that came my way. Sometimes I could do was give out a couple aspirin and not cause further harm. I even delivered 3 babies, but that's a whole different story.

Gook sores and skin problems were my main practice. Their sanitation was lousy. Clean em up, boil out with hydrogen peroxide, pack the mostimes cratered wound with bacitration and apply a clean dressing. Sometimes a shot of penicillin. I never gave the Viets any anti-biotic pills because I couldn't know where they would end up, but I knew where that shot went.

About 70% of my patients were kids, newborns I could hold in one hand up to 10 or 12 years old. Some of these kids had sores all over their little bodies. I didn't think they had ever seen a bar of soap in their lives. Sanitation was the pits. Drugs, dressings, and other meds supplies I never had any problem getting back at the aid station, but soap I had to scrounge or buy at the PX. I couldn't afford that.

In one of my letters home I mentioned my soap problem, and then forgot about it. Little did I know what was going to happen then. I had been transferred back to the aid station when I stated to get boxes of soap through the mail. We are talking SOAP. Big bars, little bars, Ivory, Lux, Palm Olive, Dial, all kinds and sizes.

I was back in the rear and couldn't get out the med-cap, at least not back to "my" villes. I had been sent out with 1st Platoon, H Troop 17th Armored Cav. My platoon and the med platoon had the best selection of soap I the Division, probably the whole of Viet Nam. I found out my mother had talked to all her friends, clubs, and church and the soap just kept coming. I'm talking boxes 10 and 20 pounds at a time full of soap. I admit I would rather have had Kool-aid, Chese-Curls, saUnited Statesges and things like that but here I had soap coming out my ears. I had become pretty hardened to the war, didn't have to time to med-cap, and I just didn't mention in my letters what I was doing with all this soap. I guess I thought Mom would just stop sending it. Soap was starting to pile up at an alarming rate.

Sometime later we were back in base camp for a three-day stand down. I was back in the med plt hooch when in walks a captain and pfc photographer from Div. PIO. My dad had written them and wanted to know what was happening with all this soap. Now it seemed that the PIO wanted some publicity. The next morning the enlisted photographer, Gary Moore another HHC medic, and I jumped in a Med platoon jeep/ambulance loaded with soap and took off. Armed with a couple M-16s, a camera, and boxes of soap, merrily through the boonies we went off towards Son Tra.

What a memorable day. We stopped in villes along the way and gave out bars of soap till we were mobbed then sped off to the next likely stop. It was like something out of a Keystone Cops movie when the Viets learned we were giving free soap. When we made it to Son Tra I saw some old friends (couple months removed), we gave out beacoup bars of soap and headed back for chow.

Altogether the operation was a total success. The soap was gone (except for a personal stash), the PIO got some pictures (publicity), Moore got away from the rut of base camp for a day, and I thought the whole thing was over.

The next day I was back in the boonies with the tracks looking for trouble, sometimes finding it. Soap kept coming. My cousin in Kenosha had a soap drive in her school, my uncle sent soap from Denver, more soap, soap, soap, soap. Everyone in my platoon had their choice of soap, water was darn scarce most of the time, but soap we had. We often were convoying up and down highway 1 and it seemed as if every roadside business and hawker south of Chu Lai had family size Ivory, Lux, Camay, etc. for sale. So even I could figure out where that soap for the kids' sanitation ended up.

I caught a bullet on 11 Mar 69 and was evacuated to the 6th CC in Cam Ranh for a month. Moore replaced me in the field and was killed two days later. I was sick of the whole damn thing. When I got out of the hospital I gave three footlockers full o soap to the An Toc Catholic orphanage, the sisters could use it anyway they wanted. I just didn't care anymore. My last couple months, in country, were with D Co. 22 Med Bn, Chu Lai, in the rear.

I try to remember the good times, and forget the bad. This story started with the best of intentions, on everyone's part, then got screwed up. Kind of like the whole war. This is a story that I have never told-I hope that my family will forgive me for the way it ended 20 years ago.

So it goes.

M. Moehrke

About the Artist

Don Unrau

Born1950
BirthplaceWolf Point, MT
GenderMale
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American
Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 1989
Robert B. Menschel Gallery, 1994

Essays

For many Americans born in the decades before Neil Armstrong's 'giant leap for mankind' the Vietnam War will always occupy varying degrees of their spirit, and inform many aspects of their life experience. Some served, some protested, some profited, and some sent others to die. The amount of ones' spirit and the breadth of experience which the Vietnam War occupies fluctuates within the vast range of human emotion - but rarely settles in comfort or resolve.

Most of the young men and women who came together to protest the War and 'overthrow the military industrial complex' have acquiesced to accepting a slightly more tolerant, scaled back , and easier to live with military industrial complex. The deadly confrontation at Kent State and the bombing of the University of Wisconsin's Army Mathematics Research Center at Madison, that killed a brilliant young physicist, brought the finality and frustration of violent confrontation back home from across the ocean. These violent acts triggered the beginning of the end of the anti-war movement, and the idealism of qualitative change began to fade to liberal ideals, careers, and families.

The young men and women who served in Vietnam suffered through the horror of the War. The sacrifices made by those who returned were met with ambivalence and silence by a country deeply divided, confused, and angry. Even today more than twenty years after the end of the War, when someone mentions that they served in Vietnam, the conversation more often than not dissolves to murmurs, long pauses, and a sudden change in topic.

Don Unrau served as a medic in Vietnam, was wounded in 1971 and discharged from the Army in 1973. Shortly after returning home he destroyed all the snapshots he made in Vietnam in an attempt to trash his War experience, and ease his feelings of confusion and anger at a government he felt had lied to him, and a country that could not understand his pain. After studying photography on and off for several years Unrau felt the need to reclaim the memories contained in the snapshots he had destroyed, and in 1984 he began work on a series of portraits of Vietnam Veterans titled War Stories. Unrau knew that simple portraits could not contain the range of expression or tap the emotions that he knew simmered inside the men and women who served in Vietnam. There were unspoken words that needed to accompany the portraits, and War Stories evolved into a collaboration between Unrau and the Veterans who agreed to participate in the project.

Unrau began the series by contacting a few Veterans he already knew, asking them if they would be willing to sit for a portrait, and then write something about Vietnam in the margin of the photograph. The process often took months to complete. Several meetings might occur before Unrau made a single picture, and the Veterans provided the text at whatever pace needed to find the courage to honestly express their memories and present realities of what Vietnam is to them. As Unrau continued to work on the project more Veterans became interested in participating, and after five years Unrau completed 25 pieces for the series.

Taken by themselves, the portraits depict men and women approaching middle age who all might be part of the same high school class. They all confront the camera intently, and display the intensity of a hidden experience that surfaces for a moment of personal indulgence. The handwritten patterns of sentences individualize their emotions as their words blast out anger, confusion, heroics, and hope.

In 1991 when operation Desert Storm was unleashed to liberate the Kuwait 'democracy,' Unrau imagined the cycle of lies and deceit he knew from Vietnam beginning again. If history was going to repeat itself, Unrau decided that he needed to go back to Vietnam to reclaim his personal history. Until that point he only knew Vietnam as an icon for pain and confusion, not a country that people called home. He got the opportunity to return in 1992 with a group of Americans who were going to Vietnam to build clinics. In exchange for a few weeks of work Unrau was able to spend several more weeks traveling and photographing throughout the country. His photographs from that trip are included in this catalogue and exhibition along with the portraits from War Stories. This new work titled Meditations Vietnam contrasts severely with the images from War Stories, and at the same time gives the images in War Stories another degree of measured tension. The anguish and pain in the faces and words of the Veterans in War Stories are nowhere to be seen in the casual daily lives that Unrau has captured in most of the photographs from Meditations Vietnam.

In a few of the photographs there is evidence of War. An unobtrusive marker that locates My Lai, bomb casings resting against a mural painting, and a jet suspended on a pedestal in a city park, are only faint and almost forgotten reminders of the War, as if they were artifacts lost in a cavernous museum of living history. Taking his cue from the diminished stature of these all but forgotten relics, Unrau records a few on film and moves along. Most of Unrau's images from Meditations Vietnam are not much different from the photographs that a sophisticated traveler, who wanted to remember his first impressions of a new and different place, might bring back from a well-planned journey. When Unrau photographs a group of adolescent girls in Hanoi they line up in a row and smile just as they do in Philadelphia or Chicago or LA. In other pictures, tennis players wear white, Coca-Cola is the drink of choice, and young lovers pose for a romantic picture taken by a friendly man just for the asking.

Unrau's trip back to Vietnam allowed him to connect with the people who live there on a human level. The photographs he made embellish persistent bad memories about Vietnam with something more positive, and perhaps more ordinary. More ordinary is probably a place that most Vietnam Veterans would settle on being in, and Unrau's photographs offer some comfort that such a place can exist as a state of mind, if not in the location one calls home.

Vietnam is the story of our generation. It unleashed a torrent of violence in the United States that persists in the streets of our cities, in our classrooms, in the music we listen to, and in the movies we watch. Not all the violence is out in the open, we harbor the violence inherent in the frustration of failed dreams, of changes that we were not strong enough to enact, and of sacrifices we were too week to make. The courage to face their demons that Don Unrau and all the Veterans who collaborated with him on War Stories, and the solace of ordinary life that he found in Vietnam in 1992, give us hope that the depth of human emotion provides us with a reservoir of consciousness and empathy that we can draw on long after we think it's empty.

Jeffrey Hoone (c) 1994