A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2001/January 2002

ARTS OF WAR

BY MARC LEEPSON

 

Comic Actor Tom La Grua's Journey of Discovery in Vietnam

It's January of 1968. You're an 18-year-old high-school dropout who's lived his entire life in an ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn near Coney Island. There's a war on. What do you do?  

"I enlisted in the Army," said Tom La Grua, the veteran Hollywood comic actor who is best known for his role as Remo in the hit TV series Caroline in the City. "I knew there was a war on," La Grua told us in a recent telephone interview, "but I was a very young 18, especially compared to teenagers today. I was naive. I was patriotic, but I didn't expect to go into the infantry." 

So much for expectations. La Grua underwent basic training at Ft. Gordon, infantry AIT at Ft. Jackson, and NCO school at Ft. Benning. He found himself in Vietnam on January 3, 1969. La Grua served in III Corps with B Company, 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, of the First Infantry Division. He was initially sent to the Big Red One's headquarters at Di An just north of Saigon, then shipped out to the infamous base camp at Lai Khe, known as "Rocket City," because it was a favorite NVA rocket target. 

"I knew I was in trouble when I got to Di An and I saw the First Division's motto: 'Duty First. No mission too difficult. No sacrifice too great,' " La Grua said. "I had no problem with 'duty first' or with 'no mission too difficult,' but I was in trouble when I got to the third part.'' 

The trouble started his first night. "I was in the field for two and a half hours when my first mortar attack came," he said. "From there, it was a real learning experience." The Brooklyn teenager soon had his horizons greatly expanded in the war he had no intention of taking part in. The entire experience, he said, "was eye opening."  

Until he joined the Army, La Grua said, "my world was a very narrow one back home in Brooklyn. When I was in the Army I found myself with people from all around the country." He likens his journey of discovery in Vietnam to that of Lance the Surfer in the movie, Apocalypse Now. "I identify with that character--the naive young boy who learns a lot going down the river."  

La Grua came home from Vietnam in January 1970 and did not have an easy readjustment. He found that he had repressed many strong feelings in Vietnam, cloaking them under the GI phrase, "It don't mean nothing," which he used, La Grua said, "to help survive emotionally, to have a value system." La Grua was assigned to the motor pool at Ft. Hood, Texas, which didn't help his readjustment blues. "It was very difficult," he said. "I was just marking time. It wasn't a lot of fun." One fun thing did happen at Hood, though: La Grua joined an on-base theater company and got the comedic lead in The Pajama Game.  

He had done some acting in high school and auditioned for the part as a lark. "I was always a funny guy, a cutup," he said. "I think I survived Vietnam through humor--the ability to make people laugh, to get people's minds off the war, if only for a little while." 

La Grua got out of the Army on February 12, 1971. He'd picked up his high school GED in the Army, went home to Brooklyn, and enrolled in a local community college. He joined a local theater group, the Everyman Company. The company's director, Jonathan Ringkamp, wrote a teleplay based on La Grua's war experiences, which he sold to KCET, the Los Angeles PBS station. La Grua played the lead in the show, You Can Run But You Can't Hide

A couple of years later La Grua moved to L.A. to try to make it as an actor. He studied with several teachers, including the well-known Peggy Feury. He joined an improv group, the Groundlings, whose alumni include a raft of Saturday Night Live cast members. Before long, La Grua discovered his niche: comic acting.  

During his 25-year career, La Grua's appeared in more than a hundred TV shows as a guest star and in many series as a recurring character. That includes shows such as Baretta, The Practice, The Golden Girls, Sabrina the Teenaged Witch, ER, Home Improvement, NYPD Blue, and Married With Children.  

"Situation comedy," he said, "seemed to open up a door for me. When a door opens, you have to walk in. I spent my first years home from the war not doing that. When a door opened then, I wouldn't walk in. But I did that in L.A., and it worked for me." 

La Grua's latest role has been crucial in Hollywood. Recently elected the third vice president of the Screen Actor's Guild, he chaired SAG's National TV/Theatrical Negotiating Committee and was the pointman in the successful effort to avert an industry-crippling actors strike last spring. 

His service in the Vietnam War, La Grua said, was "the defining moment" in his life. "I've had others--my marriage, my three children. But everything I do and everything I am is a direct result of that experience in the Vietnam War. It shaped me and allowed me to become what I am. I'm talking about the experience of combat, of leadership, of having my views and perspective broadened." 

His Vietnam War experiences, La Grua said, even helped during the tense labor negotiations with the film industry. "You've heard the phrase 'When everyone around you has lost their heads, try to keep yours,' " he said. "I learned that in Vietnam. When everything's exploding around you, you need to find a way to hold on. I did that during contract negotiations with the big Hollywood studios."


LIFE 360 

The first episode of the excellent new PBS-TV series Life 360, which aired October 5, was called "Six Degrees of Separation." It dealt with different aspects of the connectedness of people. The show's longest and most riveting segment told the story of the human legacy of Airman William Pitsenbarger, A USAF pararescue jumper who saved upwards of fifty men of the First Infantry Division's C Company 2nd of the 16th on April 11, 1966. 

In the segment, four men whose lives Pitsenbarger saved tell their war and postwar stories. Each makes the point that Pitsenbarger's extraordinary act of courage continues to have an impact today. That impact consists of more than three decades in the cumulative lives of the dozens of men he saved, along with the lives of their significant others, children, and grandchildren. Life 360 ends with the December 2000 ceremonies in which Pitsenbarger posthumously received the Medal of Honor.


SHAREEN 

When Vietnam veteran Ray Nebeker was on his deathbed in 1985 suffering from Agent-Orange-related cancer, he asked his daughter Shareen Torres to write a song about his postwar health battles. Shareen, an accomplished country-folk singer-songwriter, took those words to heart. Three years later, after moving from California to Taos, New Mexico, and visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire, Shareen wrote "Daddy Always Loved to See A Hero." She performed that moving ballad for the first time at a special concert she organized that Memorial Day at Angel Fire.  

Shareen recorded the song in 1990, but it wasn't until 2001 that she put it on a CD with a group of other Vietnam-veteran-related tunes. This stirring compilation, called To Angel Fire and Back, is dedicated to "victims and survivors" of the Vietnam War.

"Fifty percent of the all the profits from this album will be set aside in a trust account to be used to help veterans and their families who are still suffering the physical and emotional effects of the war," Shareen said. For more information, go to www.shareenonline.com


ARTS IN BRIEF 

VVA has enthusiastically thrown its support behind the Veterans History Project, the recently launched oral history program by the Library of Congress. The goal is to collect the memories, accounts, and documents of veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf Wars, and to preserve these stories for future generations.  

All war veterans, all those who served in the armed forces, all those who served as civilians in wartime, relatives of veterans, teachers, students, librarians, archivists, historians, and just-plain-interested citizens are encouraged to help compile the oral histories. For information go to www.loc.gov/folklife/vets or call 888-371-5848. 


The Brad Pitt-Robert Redford CIA thriller Spy Game is set in 1991 when contract agent Pitt gets into deep trouble in China and his boss, veteran agent Redford, comes to his rescue. A good bit of the Tony Scott-directed film is told in flashback as we learn how the spy boys bonded during their adventures in the Cold War hot spots.  

Pitt plays a very young--and not very convincing--Marine sniper in the Vietnam War in the brief segment set in country in 1971, in which he and his partner come under attack from what appears to be the only helicopter used by the North Vietnamese Army during the war. Not to worry, though. His protector, Robert Redford, swoops in on his own chopper at the last second and saves the day.


Nelson DeMille, the big-selling novelist who did a tour as a 1st Cav LT in Vietnam (see the accompanying review of his latest, Up Country), has been chosen to sit on a new panel of Book-of-the-Month Club judges. DeMille joins travel writer Bill Bryson, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Annie Proulx, and columnist-author Anna Quindlen on the new BOMC panel.


Robert Olen Butler made cyberspace history in October by going on line live and creating a short story from scratch in real time with the entire world wide web watching. He did his creative writing webcast over several nights beginning October 30 for two-hour stretches. "Every comma stroke of the process [was] visible, from beginning to end," Butler said electronically. Butler, a Vietnam veteran who is a creative writing professor at Florida State University, is the author of 11 books of fiction, many with Vietnam War themes. That includes A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain (1993), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His latest novel, Fair Warning, will be published in February.


Author query: For an anthology of "Dear John" letters, Anna Holmes is looking for letters written to American servicemen while they were stationed overseas from girlfriends and wives back home--letters in which the women in question are breaking off a romantic relationship. E-mail: annaholmes@earthlink.net or write 5-19 50th Ave., No. 4, Long Island City, NY 11101.n 


Contributing Writer Notes 

Jim Belshaw, whose incisive personality profiles often appear in these pages, was presented with the First Amendment Award in October by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Civil Liberties Foundation. Belshaw, an Albuquerque Journal columnist, was honored for his insightful commentary. 

Marc Leepson, The VVA Veteran's longtime arts editor and columnist, is the author of a new book: Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built (Free Press). "The book has nothing whatsoever to do with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans," Leepson said. You can find out more by visiting www.savingmonticello.com

   


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