Vietnam Buffs Bring Jungle to Va.

Between battles, Patrick Hubble, left, leader of the enemy fighters, compares weapons with reenactors Walt Sowinski and Andy Sterlen.
Between battles, Patrick Hubble, left, leader of the enemy fighters, compares weapons with reenactors Walt Sowinski and Andy Sterlen. (Tracy A. Woodward)
By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 8, 2005

Leaves rustled, and Robby Gouge, sweating in his jungle boots and Army fatigues, clutched his semiautomatic rifle tighter. He walked slightly crouched and listened intently, just as he thought his father might have done.

The 30-year-old son had come to the oak forests of central Virginia to relive his old man's war in Vietnam.

Walking behind Gouge on this hazy summer morning were a dozen men, toting gear culled from military surplus stores. Another team had fanned across the other side of the woods. A few men and women, dressed in the black pajamas of enemy fighters, waited in ambush.

Most war reenactments are staged to make history come alive for generations who know it only dimly from books. Vietnam, though, isn't quite history. To many people, it's a painfully current event.

Presidential candidates still have to explain what they did during the war, and every military action since 1975, including the conflict in Iraq, risks being compared to the failures there. Even those who stage battles from other wars question whether it is too soon to reenact Vietnam.

Most of the men and women at the Virginia event were in their thirties and forties -- too young to have experienced the action firsthand but too old to escape the war's grip. Their fathers served in Vietnam, like Gouge's, or they grew up watching it on the news.

As the 90-degree heat and his 50-pound rucksack weighed on him, Gouge conceded that spending a few weekends a summer pretending to be a U.S. soldier in the jungles was crazy. He missed his wife and two kids and wondered why he wasn't at home enjoying the air conditioning.

But this feeling of misery was what he was after. Too much war talk is wrapped up in theory and politics.

"It gives a mental picture of what our dads did," said Gouge, who teaches history at a middle school in Asheville, N.C. "I was blessed. I never had to really do this."

Road to the Past

To get to Vietnam, follow Interstate 64 to Louisa, Va., where signs point out Civil War sites. In 1864, field hospitals were set up around town as more than 1,600 men were killed or wounded when Union forces tried to shut down the Virginia Central Railroad.

Past the fast-food joints that make up the business district, the paved roads turn into gravel lanes and, finally, into dirt. Signs show the way: "To the Nam," "Phou Bai -- 2 km."

By midafternoon Friday of a reenactment weekend, a clearing on 50 acres of private property was filled with tents and cots. Water in plastic jugs was transferred to green military containers. Participants carried their ammunition in plastic bags, making it easier for others to check that they were blanks.

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