How do you teach today’s children, with all of their electronic gadgetry, about the Vietnam War? That is the question Mac Burdette and the folks at Patriots Point tried to answer with their new exhibit: The Vietnam Experience.
“You don’t just put out a helicopter and a river patrol boat with a plaque explaining what they were used for,” Burdette says. “You have to give them an experience.”
But you also have to be mindful of the veterans of that war – one of the most contentious wars in U.S. history – who are all more than 60 years old and many of whom were not welcomed home as American heroes at the war’s end.
“The men and women who served in Vietnam were just as brave and courageous as the men and women who served in World War II,” says Burdette, a 32-year Army veteran who was commissioned in 1972 as the fighting in Vietnam was winding down.
“I never served in Vietnam, but I had four high school classmates from Hillcrest High School who died there,” he says, noting that he works beside a memorial dedicated to the 1,000 South Carolinians who died in the war. “It is a reminder every day of how fortunate I was to be able to go to college. My friends didn’t go to college. They got drafted.”
The Vietnam Experience is actually a two-part exhibit, featuring a re-creation of a “Brown Water Navy” base that would have been situated in the Mekong Delta in one section and, in the other, a Marine base at Khe Sanh – the site of the longest battle of the war.
Both experiences are set around the time of the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks by the North Vietnamese that started during the Tet holiday – the Vietnamese New Year celebration – in January 1968 and caught the U.S. military off guard. The year turned out to be the deadliest of the war for U.S. soldiers, and public support for the war fell.
“When we decided we needed to do something to honor Vietnam veterans at Patriots Point, this being the 50th anniversary of the war, we certainly decided that it needed to be enhanced with technology so that people would come out of there with an experience,” Burdette says. “If you have an experience and the experience is good, you will learn from it. It’s as simple as that.”
Part of the experience includes ground rattling sounds that recall shelling and helicopters and aircraft overhead. It can have an unnerving effect on folks who experienced Vietnam for real 40 or 50 years ago.
“It’s real enough that the VA and the Medical University of South Carolina have teamed up to treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress,” Burdette says. “They can face their demons but know that they are safe.
“It takes what we are doing to a whole other level. We’re actually doing some good for the people we are honoring.”
Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum, 40 Patriots Point Road, Mount Pleasant; 843.884.2727. Open 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free for active-duty military in uniform, $20 for adults, and $17 for seniors and active-duty military not in uniform (ID required). Children ages 6-11 are $12, and younger children are free with an adult ticket.