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july/august 2007

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By Marc Leepson
Big plans are afoot for the Opening Ceremonies at VVA’s National Convention in July. The biggest of all will be the appearance on Wednesday morning, July 18, of one of the top country music acts in America, Big & Rich, known in real life as “Big” Kenny Alphin and John Rich. Big & Rich will perform their hit song, “The 8th of November,” which deals with the bloody battle for Hill 65 fought by the 1st/503rd of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on November 8, 1965. The song and its stirring accompanying video were inspired by Hill 65 veteran Niles Harris of Deadwood, South Dakota, who also will attend the Convention.

“I first heard Big & Rich sing ‘The 8th of November’ at the dedication of the South Dakota Vietnam Veterans Memorial last September, and it was a memorable moment for everyone in the huge crowd, but especially for the thousands of Vietnam veterans who were there,” said VVA National President John Rowan. “I have no doubt whatsoever that everyone who sees Big & Rich at the Convention Opening Ceremonies will have the same reaction. We are honored that they are taking time from their national touring schedule to join us in Springfield.”

Big Kenny Alphin and John Rich are young veterans of the country music singing and song-writing scene who met at a Nashville club where Big Kenny was performing in 1998 at a time when their careers were at a standstill. They soon became friends, then music-writing partners, and, in 2000, began a series of Tuesday-night jam sessions at a nondescript Nashville club called The Pub of Luv. They quickly attracted an eclectic coterie of musicians and admirers who came to be known as the “Muzik Mafia.”

Big & Rich signed their first recording contract with Warner Brothers Records in 2002. The rest is country music history. Their first album, Horse of a Different Color, featuring the hit single, “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” came out two years later, went double platinum, and zoomed to No. 1 on the country music charts. Their follow-up, “Comin’ to Your City,” released in November of 2005, sold over a million copies and was nominated for a Grammy. The critics raved, especially about Big & Rich’s unique blend of musical styles and genres.

“Announcing that they’re here to make ‘country music without prejudice,’ they mix a fiddle, big-ass guitar groove, and some hair-metal ‘hey!’ yells and even make room for a Spanglish rap by a six-foot-five black Texan named Cowboy Troy,” Rolling Stone’s Christian Hoard wrote of Horse.” That album, Hoard said, “is as long on song-writing and down-home twang as it is on genre-f*&^ing eccentricity.”
Or as Rich puts it: “Country listeners find it completely okay to own an Eminem record or an OutKast record. I want Big Boi to say, ‘I don’t really like country-western music, but this Big & Rich record is cool stuff.’ ”

Following the release of their first album, Big & Rich joined big country stars Martina McBride and Tim McGraw on a sold-out stadium tour. Then they went out on their own, performing to huge crowds and to more critical acclaim.

“From start to finish, a Big & Rich concert is a visual and aural experience hard to forget,” music critic Ken Tucker wrote recently. “Whether it’s John Rich bedecked in his cowboy finest and playing a flying V [guitar], or Big Kenny in one of his trademark [top hats], high-stepping around the stage like a deranged drum major, you ain’t seen nothing like this.”

The Big & Rich connection with Vietnam veterans came in 2003 when the country duo happened to walk into the Buffalo Bar in Deadwood. Niles Harris was tending bar. Harris sported a distinctive black top hat, which Big Kenny took an instant liking to. “Big liked the hat, so he wore it during the set, and I just told him to keep it,” Harris told the Rapid City Journal last year.

The following day, Harris gave the musicians a tour of old gold mines in the area and told them the story of what happened on Hill 65 on November 8, 1965, one of the first big pitched battles of the American war in Vietnam, and one of the costliest. Forty-eight 173rd Sky Soldiers died in the fighting in triple-canopy jungle; more than a hundred were wounded. Medic Lawrence Joel, who treated more than a dozen men in mid-battle while seriously wounded himself, received the Medal of Honor for his heroism that day. Of the thirty men in Harris’s platoon, just five survived. Harris himself was wounded at Hill 65 and out of action for almost two years. He went on to a 25-year Army career before retiring in 1987.

Harris kept in contact with Big & Rich after their careers took off. A year later they wrote “The 8th of November” in tribute to Harris and the men of the 1st of the 503rd. Then, in September of 2005, Harris accompanied Big & Rich and a documentary film crew back to Vietnam. When they found Hill 65, Harris ceremoniously buried the boots he wore during that battle, and the three men offered a toast to the Americans who perished there.

The resulting 51-minute documentary appeared on the Great American Country cable network last June. Big & Rich will perform the song, along with its music video, at the Convention’s Opening Ceremonies. And Niles Harris will be on hand for the occasion and for the song that John Rich says that he and his partner “consider the most important piece of music we’ve ever been a part of.”

The excellent Twyla Tharp music and dance extravaganza Movin’ Out is now back on the road after a six-month hiatus. The new tour of the Vietnam War-themed production set to Billy Joel tunes will hit several dozen smaller cities, such as Peoria, Illinois; Toledo, Ohio; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Roanoke, Virginia; Augusta, Georgia; and Lafayette, Louisiana; in the United States and Canada through June 2008. It began with a long run, from June 13-August 21, at Harrah’s Casino in Atlantic City. The show’s web site does not list the tour schedule, so keep an eye posted for it in your neck of the woods.

In as many venues as will allow it, Tharp—as she has done in the past—has made arrangements for discounted tickets for veterans and active-duty military personnel. At Harrah’s she invited members of an employee Vietnam veterans group to the opening and cast party.

The Army Historical Foundation has announced its First Annual Photo Contest. Two winning photos will be chosen and prizes of $300 for first place and $100 for second place will be awarded, along with the possibility that the winning photos will be published in the foundation’s magazine, On Point, or in another AHF publication.

Each photo must have a U.S. Army-related subject prior to 2007 and must be an unpublished, original work. Send your black-and-white prints, color slides, or color
prints to: Graphic Designer, On Point, 2425 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201, or e-mail your images to

The deadline is July 15. For more info, contact Randy Yasenchak at 703-522-7901,
ext. 4172, or e-mail

Members of Rochester, New York, Chapter 20 took part in the opening in February of “Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited,” an exhibition of 46 prints by photographer and Marine Corps Vietnam veteran Craig J. Barber, at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Barber, who today is one of the nation’s top landscape photographers, served in Vietnam for 20 months. He returned three times in recent years to the same places where he once fought. The photographs in the exhibit were taken with an eight-by-ten pinhole camera.

“These profound and dreamlike photographs are far from the horrific images we carry inside us that reduce Vietnam to a place of perpetual guerrilla war,” said Alison Nordstrom, the George Eastman House curator of photographs. “These pictures look like dreams imperfectly remembered. Still and slow as they are, they suggest an imminent scream of fear or anger beneath an apparent tranquility.”

Maxine Hong Kingston, the noted author who has worked closely with Vietnam and other American war veterans for many years, took part in a conversation with Bill Moyers on the Memorial Day Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. The topic was her work helping veterans express themselves on the printed page. The show is available in its entirety on

You can take a look at a three-and-a-half-minute video preview of Crossing Over: The Vietnam Stories, a still-being-developed stage play based on Richard Currey’s acclaimed 1980 book, Crossing Over: A Vietnam Journal online at PbS7-MzY6_A The book, Currey told us, “has been done on stage before, once in a student production at San Francisco State University and another time by veteran-inmates of Raiford State Prison in Florida, both in the early 1980s.” Stay tuned for updates on the latest production.

Hooah!!!! Radio, the Internet station that is aimed at active-duty military folks as well as veterans and their families, has begun its second year on the world wide web. The non-profit operation is run completely by volunteers who play music and offers news of interest to the militarily inclined. “As the War on Terror plays out every night on the evening news, Hooah!!!! Radio is a place where all can go for good music, good fun, and unwavering support of our troops, veterans, and their families,” Mary Ann Reitano, the assistant director of marketing, told us. To tune in, go to

Also in the radio vein: John Thompson, who is just 36 years old, started his own Internet radio station,, in 2004 because he couldn’t find any other stations that played the music he liked—tunes of the Vietnam War era. Now the Ohio IT guy has hundreds of songs on the site and has dedicated the enterprise to Vietnam veterans. “It’s a blend of what was on the transistors in country as well as back home,” he told us, a mixture of pop, rock, hard rock, psychedelic rock and R&B. Thompson also “works in AFVA PSAs, Chris Noel, presidential speeches, and some movie quotes throughout the broadcast.”

The Last Ghost of War, a documentary about a lawsuit filed by Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange against dozens of American chemical companies, which we mentioned in the January/February issue, has been shown in recent months at college campuses on the East Coast. The 57-minute film makes the case that the chemical companies knew of the dangers of dioxin and that scientists warned top officials against using it in Vietnam. The film also deals with research projects by Vietnamese scientists who linked Agent Orange to birth defects and diseases. For more info, go to

David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times Vietnam War correspondent and the author of The Best and the Brightest (1972), the seminal book on Kennedy and Johnson Vietnam War managers, died in a car crash April 23 in Menlo Park, California. He was 73 years old and working on a book about the famed 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts.

After graduating from Harvard in 1955, Halberstam began his journalism career at a small newspaper in West Point, Mississippi. He went to Vietnam for the first time in 1962 and gained national fame for his reporting of the war. He went to Vietnam in favor of the American effort, but became an early critic of the war. “His dispatches,” Halberstam’s New York Times obituary said, “infuriated American military commanders, but they accurately reflected the realities on the ground.”

Halberstam quit daily journalism in 1967 and went on to write 21 books on topics as varied as the Vietnam War, civil rights, baseball, football, and basketball.
Three weeks after Halberstam’s death, on May 13, another noted Vietnam War correspondent, Kate Webb, died of cancer at age 64. Webb, who was born in New Zealand, came to Vietnam without a job in 1967. She soon found work freelancing for United Press International and went on to head UPI’s bureau in Cambodia.

Webb, one of few female Vietnam War correspondents, is best known for her fearless, in-the-line-of-fire reporting and for being taken prisoner by the NVA along with five other journalists on April 7, 1971. The prisoners were held for 23 days. During her arduous captivity, erroneous reports surfaced that Webb had died and several newspapers ran her obituary.

On April 11, twelve days before Halberstam’s death, another illustrious chronicler of an American war, Kurt Vonnegut, died at 84 in a New York City hospital. Vonnegut, who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, wrote fourteen novels, including the masterful Slaughterhouse-Five, a fantastical recreation of the WW II Dresden firebombing that came out in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. That book was seen by many as a fiercely antiwar statement. Vonnegut witnessed the firebombing firsthand as an American prisoner of war.

Toby Morris, a magazine photographer, is working on a series of portraits of veterans who have PTSD. “I am just taking simple, clean studio or environmental portraits,” Morris told us, “which seldom takes more than an hour or two. I arrange my schedule to visit veterans whenever and wherever I find them.” If you’re interested go to or call 917-312-0621, and mention you found out about the project in these pages.

Towers Productions, a non-fiction TV production company, is putting together a documentary telling the story of the Vietnam War through the voices of those who participated in it. “The goal of the production,” Towers tell us, “is to tell the first-person accounts and visualize the war anew by marrying individual soldiers’ tales to archive material filmed or photographed by the soldiers themselves.” If you have images and are interested in participating, contact Archive Manager Jennifer Scott
at 312-601-6967 or email

Ginger Cucolo is doing research on ID tags and dog tags for a book she is writing. She is looking for personal stories dealing with dog or ID tags that would help her convey “their deeply personal meaning.” To find out more, go to

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