Vietnam War

#ThrowbackThursday: November 30, 2006

With permission, The Beacon is archiving past issues of Matthews Record (also called Matthews News and Record and The Matthews Record) articles online. Throwback Thursday articles will include relevant content still facing Matthews today. These stories were originally published November 30, 2006 and was written by Janet Denk.

Two men, two worlds apart, together again

When the two Matthews men first met, a little over a year ago, it didn’t take long for the exchanged pleasantries to move into much deeper territory. Discussions of home ownership, family and food preparation shed light on the cultural differences between Oh Rmah and Bill Dixon. But their stories began to intersect when the topic of Vietnam began to emerge.

Oh, a local cabinet assembler living on Tank Town Road in Matthews, was born in the central highland region of Vietnam. His people are known as Montagnards (French for “mountain people”). North Carolina is home to many Montagnard families.

tbt november 6 2006 front.jpg

These two men, from two different worlds, have discovered that they traversed the same jungle decades terrain decades ago. They shared similar memories and fought, quite possibly, on the same mountain thousands of miles from where they stood that day in Crestdale. both men grew up modestly, raised families, joined armies, endured the deaths of their own sons. They’ve seen guts and glory, yet go about their days, as neighbors and simple men. Their communication, like many soldiers, does not depend on words.

It just is.

That comes with the territory.

The territory in the late 60s was the central area of Vietnam in places with names like Dakto, Khe Son, Hamburger Hill.

Oh Rmah

When Americans pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, the war for Oh Rmah and his people did not end. A constant struggle to secure his homeland, the Montagnard joined those who fought against communism in his country. Oh Rmah was happy to work alongside US Army troops to serve as an interpreter and a guide in his native highlands.

For this allegiance, Oh and many others like him would pay a costly price. It would be two years into his imprisonment that his wife, Din, would have knowledge of his whereabouts. The war in Vietnam ended in 1993 for Oh when he was released from prisoner of war camp where he endured years of torture, starvation, and misery in an attempt by the government to “re-educate” him and his people.

It didn’t work because he is a proud American today.

But memories of home still haunt him. The scars on his ankles from shackles remind him of communist Vietnam, where he still has family, including a daughter in her twenties.

The first three months in the camp, Oh, like many others who fought alongside Americans, was tossed into a hole in the ground with his hands and feet bound together. “No light,” Oh recalls. “My hair grew down to here,” he gestures to his forearm. “We were so dirty and we had lice. Excuse me, ma’am.” His recollection of the filth and the shame cause him to become modest in front of strangers. “I told them whatever they wanted to hear, because I wanted to live.”

“Dick” Dixon

Daylight can hardly penetrate a triple canopy jungle. Company A from the 173rd Airborne Division, found themselves smack in the middle of the firing perimeter before they, or the well-entrenched North Vietnamese Army, discovered each other. Three machine guns, at close range, opened fire nearly decimating Company A.

Bill “Dick” Dixon’s command group directed Company B to a left-flanking maneuver to give support to the first company. They immediately came under enemy fire, as well, causing fifteen casualties and wounding the company commander. Throughout the chaos, as darkness began to fall and men around him were dying, Dixon’s military training, or maybe his maturity (he was seasoned at the age of 25, while the average age of soldier in that war was 17) motivated him. He initiated radio contact with the main command post and began reorganizing the remaining men. The battle raged on for another 45 minutes until a thick fog and relentless rain blanketed the hilltop leaving Company A out there isolated and cut off. Dixon headed out into the jungle alone to find them.

This brave act would later earn him a Silver Star. But it would be another seventeen hours before the last wounded man would make it off that battlefield.

Two weeks ago, at the Matthews Rotary Club luncheon for the Armed Services, both men strolled the grounds of Central Piedmont Community College enjoying the food and fellowship. These are better days for both me.

When Oh earned his citizenship this year, Dixon was there. When the fancy washing machine confounded the Rmah family, Dixon helped straighten it out. When Oh threw a birthday party for one of their daughters, Dixon went to the celebration. The commissioner helps out because that’s a part of his nature.

“We couldn’t have operated over there without these guys,” Dixon says of the Montagnards. But something deeper exists between these two men that was not forged in a Matthews neighborhood or at a patriotic luncheon beneath a Carolina blue sky. It was forged in a highland jungle thousands and thousands of miles away when they were soldiers once.

tbt november 30 2006.jpg

Veterans Day in Matthews

Sunday, November 11 the Town of Matthews, NCAmerican Legion Post #235 Matthews, NC, and Marine Corps League Charlotte 750 partnered for a Veterans Day Celebration. High school students from Independence kicked the service off in Stumptown Park with patriotic songs. Phil Mowry, Commander of American Legion Post 235, and Mayor Paul Bailey both spoke of the sacrifice by those who’ve served. At noon the celebration moved to the Historic Matthews Cemetery (Pleasant Hill Drive) where two of Matthews’ own fallen World War I soldiers were remembered on the 100th anniversary of the war. The Marine Corps League performed a rifle salute and wreaths were placed at the graves.

Veterans Day in Matthews was truly a day of remembrance and respect honoring the servicemen and women of our community.

Art for Veterans Creates Comrades-in-Art

Art for Veterans, a non-profit serving military veterans, offers an open studio, free materials, guidance, and a safe space to create art at McDowell Arts Center by the Community Center in Matthews. Classes and studio time are offered September to June on Wednesdays from noon to 3 PM and Fridays from 1 to 4 PM .

On 9/11, the tragic time struck artist Eileen Schwartz particularly hard. Living in San Diego, she was “so upset by the events of the day” that she felt the need to immediately do something. “There was patriotism all around, flags everywhere, cars painted with flags, faces painted with flags,” she said. Schwartz wanted to capture the images of the moment.

With the work and help of others, her intentions and photographs turned into what became approximately 400 snapshots and the basis of an art gallery show. Creating a nonprofit organization called “Flags Across the Nation,” which also added the display of children’s pictures and then quilts soon followed. The work forever linked her to vets and their families across the country. To date, she’s curated/created 65 shows or events from San Diego to Charlotte; she continues to receive letters from military personnel across the country, currently or previously deployed.

Five years ago (now living in Charlotte), she and her nonprofit group wanted to branch out in other directions - the art class for military personnel, “Art for Veterans,” was born. Offered weekly from September to June, anyone who has served in the military can come to the McDowell Arts Center in Matthews for (up to) three hours each Wednesday (noon to 3 p.m.). The classes and materials are free. At least 10-20 men and women (currently ages 25-94) come to quietly work on (a variety of) artwork and paintings.

“I wanted to make a safe space for veterans who wanted to come to paint,” said Schwartz, explaining that some people need to de-stress, some people are there to learn techniques and some people want to be around other veterans. “Everyone is here for a different reason,” she said.

cyma veterans 1.jpg

“I wanted to be directly involved with veterans and give them the opportunity to explore art,” said Schwartz. “I’m a supporter for individuals for what they want in their life. I give them the opportunities to explore.”

We have a lot in common with those who are in the different branches of the military. The lessons are a way to meet new people, make a connection and express ourselves through our art.
— Felicia LaGrant

To Diana Rahe, 58, US Army/NC National Guard/Desert Storm/former Gastonia police officer – driving one hour each week to attend the class has been the best thing she could hope for. After years in the military, suffering from severe PTSD and chronic ongoing and significant nightmares, her therapist urged her to “find a purpose.” An online search for Veterans Art Therapy led her to the class and the mistaken idea that she would be asked to only express her military experiences through art. “I never had a hobby before,” she said, adding that she couldn’t paint until she tried the class. “It’s so much fun to paint - it’s a great experience and (is) such a (great) experience to sit with veterans….who have served in all sorts of conflicts.”

“We have a lot in common with those who are in the different branches of the military,” said Felicia LaGrant, 59, US Army – one of the newest members of the group. “The lessons are a way to meet new people, make a connection and express ourselves through our art.”

cyma veterans 3.jpg

Dom Spedicato, 86, US Army/Korean War, said the class has helped “reveal (your) inner self and feelings,” adding that the experience has helped him ”feel what others” in the class have experienced - both physical and emotional pain. “I feel compassion for (many of) them,” he said.

“It’s a good time to spend with comrades-in-arms,” said John Prestbo, 77, US Air Force/Vietnam. “and lets me pursue my art,” said John Prestbo. “It’s a good, comfortable time. I look forward to coming here each week.”

While many classes often involve a revolving group of participants, many of the students in this class have stuck with the program, finding comfort, joy, and fulfillment in a safe space. “This is a wonderful opportunity to take advantage of for as long as I can,” said Rahe. “It’s just enjoyable to learn different techniques – it’s relaxing… It’s helped me heal. Sometimes you see things or experience things you don’t have words for and you don’t want to explore. We’re lucky to have this class. I wish more (veterans) would do this.”