This story is part of a series called “Faces of the Vietnam War.” KQED asked our audience to submit their stories about the Vietnam War. We heard from refugees, military veterans, journalists, activists and more. This story comes from Steven Burchik, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1967, as the Vietnam War was ramping up. Throughout his deployment he carried a camera, photographing his fellow soldiers and the Vietnamese villagers they interacted with. Following his service, he didn’t speak to anyone about his experiences for more than 40 years.
I had just finished college. It was June 1967 and odds were pretty good I was going to be drafted, so I enlisted basically to save time. If I’d spent six months trying to find a job I probably would have been drafted and figured let’s get it over with.
I had some family background that led me to make that decision. My father’s parents were from Czechoslovakia, my mother’s parents were from Poland. Both countries were behind the Iron Curtain, so I did believe that this was perhaps a way to stop the spread of communism.
I served as a sergeant, as a forward observer with the 1st Infantry Division from June 1968 to June 1969. Our primary duties were daily patrols, so they would fly us out or truck us out to different starting points, and we’d spend the day going about 10 kilometers — basically, looking for trouble. But we would normally come back to the base camp at the end of the day. Occasionally, we’d spend two or three days out.
Photography was a hobby. I’d been on the college paper. I used to talk to the photographers, and when I realized I might be going to Vietnam, I said, “Hey, can you show me how to use a camera?”
I didn’t take a lot of photographs initially. I was just trying to learn what I was supposed to do, and I just wanted to be careful about what I did and not get myself hurt or hurt somebody else. But after a couple of weeks, I asked the officer in charge if it was OK if I bring my camera out on a mission. And he said, “Well, you can bring it out but if you screw up once, the camera is going.”
I don’t have a single picture of combat because if we were in a combat situation, I wasn’t using the camera. So I’d take pictures on the helicopter ride in or, if we were taking trucks, on the truck ride in. Every hour we took a five-minute break while on patrol, and then I’d pull the camera out and take pictures of the guys around me. And then if we had a day off I would take pictures in our base camp.
When I took pictures of villagers — I didn’t speak Vietnamese — I would just point to the camera and point to them and most people nodded yes or something else. So I took their pictures and if they said no, I said fine. It was just courtesy. We were trying to win the hearts and minds of local people. Some of the villages, we knew some Viet Cong were embedded there, so we’d rather be talking to them and be friendly than have them throwing grenades at us.
When I got back, I was well aware of the fact that the majority of people were upset with the war. So I got home, took the uniform off, put it away and never put it back on again. Basically, I just didn’t talk about it, and that continued for 40-plus years. Many friends and co-workers did not know I was a Vietnam vet.
I just didn’t want to get into a big argument with somebody. Right or wrong, I thought it was right at the time, and I wanted to get on with my life, and I’ve met a lot of other vets who’ve done the same thing. Some still won’t talk about it. Others will.
That only changed in 2013 when a local high school English teacher asked me to give a talk to her class. The teacher is a friend of the family, and so she had known I was a Vietnam veteran.
I was a little apprehensive. I put the presentation together, and it went very well, and I actually talked to two sections of her class. The students were respectful, and it was a good conversation. I thought that was the end of it.
Well, two nights later the teacher invites my wife and I to dinner, and then she hands me a folder with 60 letters from the students. Each student wrote a short letter saying, thank you for sharing your story. And that was the first time in more than 40 years that anybody had said, “We appreciate your service, whether the cause was right or wrong.”
That was a major turning point for me. It was very emotional after all those years of not talking about it, to have somebody say something positive. So my life has turned around 180 degrees.
I think the biggest thing is the reaction I’ve gotten. I anticipated the same reaction that I probably would have gotten in 1969, and it was hard for me to believe that people’s views would change. Part of it is time has passed, so it’s not quite as raw for a lot of people.
But I’m a little older now, I’m in my early 70s, and a lot of the population wasn’t even born during the Vietnam War. So as far as I’m concerned, and I guess other Vietnam vets as well, it’s very fresh in our minds. But for a lot of the population it’s something different and far removed.
Since 2013, Burchick has begun giving talks and exhibiting his photos in galleries and museums, and he has published two books about his time in Vietnam. He lives in the East Bay with his wife, whom he married immediately after returning from the war.
KQED’s Bert Johnson, Bianca Taylor and Ryan Levi produced this report. This piece was taken from an interview with Burchik, which has been edited for length and clarity.