Sunday, December 3, 2023

"Thank you for your service"


When was the first time you heard, or, said "Thank you for your service?" I addressed this question for Veterans Day 2023, when I spoke to the residents of the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Approximately 20 some years ago, I was in the radio studio fundraising for WOI Radio in Ames. Our membership director entered the room, and we talked while we were off the air. Suddenly, he said these five words: “Thank you for your service.” I was stunned. Coming from our most unpopular war, I had never heard that.  It took about 25 years for me to hear those words. Now, it is common. Initially, I thought it was disingenuous----like, “have a nice day.” But I’ve changed, and now realize the country has changed too. I think those words come from the heart. Two weeks ago I was at Costco, getting a loaf of their sourdough bread. I was wearing my Vietnam Vet cap. The lady in front of me was Governor Reynolds. We exchanged greetings and she said, “Thank you for your service.”

My reply is something I adopted from another veteran and I suggest you try it. When someone tells me “thank you for your service,” I smile--look them straight in the eyes-- and say, “thank you for your support.” It’s mutual respect that makes us both feel proud. And I hope it encourages them to thank vets all the time.

When did YOU first speak these works, or, hear them as a veteran? 

Thursday, October 5, 2023

A Photo Speaks

Veterans around the country are being judged in creative arts competitions. I am among the contenders from the State of Iowa that have advanced to the nationwide finals. Here is my entry, in the category of creative writing-veteran's experiences.

A 53 year old photograph of a U.S. Marine on a rocky mountain island in South Vietnam haunts me more than ever. The photo is of me standing among dead roadside trees and shrubbery that had been sprayed with toxic defoliants. Collectively, these chemicals are commonly known as Agent Orange.

Early in 1970, I was a TV newscaster for the American Forces Vietnam Network at one of AFVN’s remote outposts on Hon Tre Island. The small radio and TV detachment served a large military audience at Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay.

The Photo
Herbicides were not controversial then; they were a weapon that killed trees and underbrush to deny the enemy hiding places. It may have prevented an ambush on Americans driving up this winding road to AFVN and other units.

Fifty years after I arrived in Saigon, my doctor at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa sent me to a neurologist after I complained about a tremor in my left hand. I’d already been living with insomnia and had difficulty maintaining a comfortable body temperature. 

A battery of tests, and a visit with a movement disorders specialist, confirmed the diagnosis: Parkinson’s disease. I had become a postwar casualty. Immediately, my life changed, but not always in negative ways. I have become closer to the veterans community, including a fellow Marine broadcaster whom I worked with on Hon Tre Island and who is also living with Parkinson’s.

I continue to educate myself about this complex brain syndrome and my evolving symptoms. I join online seminars and stay active to slow the disease’s progression. I walk, bike, golf, meditate and have learned tai chi. Thanks to the VA’s Recreation Therapy staff, pickle ball has become my favorite work out. A three-wheeled recumbent bike provides better balance and I enjoy hitting the trails with a proud biker group, appropriately named “Vets Riding to Live.” I competed in the VA’s Golden Age Games for the first time and won a medal. 

Participating in a one year research project through the VA and University of Iowa Hospitals to study the importance of aerobic exercise for Parkinson’s patients was especially satisfying. We had to walk a minimum 50 minutes, three times a week, at a swift pace. The research is ongoing, but I’m convinced that my exercise regimen is keeping me a step ahead of this menacing rival.

Many years before my diagnosis, as the Bangkok Bureau Chief for CBS News in Thailand, 60 Minutes sent me back to Vietnam to investigate a possible TV magazine feature on the tragic legacy of Agent Orange among Vietnamese. It was a shocking journey into hospitals, village homes and the remote countryside, in search of victims and experts who we might interview.

What I discovered there still unsettles me today: helpless parents and their children with heartbreaking deformities; a hospital wing for women with problem pregnancies; jars of aborted Siamese twins and triplets; and villagers who told me they could hear trees falling at night in areas that had been sprayed. Vietnamese officials linked much of this to Agent Orange, but supporting medical evidence didn’t exist—only a frightened population that lived on the poisoned land. 

According to the Veterans Benefits Administration, every veteran who stepped foot in Vietnam is considered potentially exposed to Agent Orange. Many of these vets now fear the ghastly consequences have become generational. At a public hearing in my hometown of Des Moines, I watched as veterans shared their worries about learning disorders, spina bifida and other maladies in their off-spring and grand kids.

I’ve been told the central Iowa VA’s neurology department sees new Vietnam veterans every week as Parkinson symptoms slowly emerge and old vets are given the dreaded diagnosis. Nationwide, more than 100,000 veterans are being treated for Parkinson’s.

The Agent Orange caseload is growing at an alarming rate, with veterans sick from Parkinson’s, cancers, nerve and other serious diseases presumed to be linked to herbicide exposure. Parkinson’s-like conditions became eligible for VA disability compensation last year, and coverage was further expanded by the PACT Act.

Many Vietnam veterans are familiar with AFVN, the military broadcasting unit where I worked and where I was exposed to Agent Orange. The armed forces network was depicted in the 1987 blockbuster movie Good Morning, Vietnam. Ironically, both comedian Robin Williams and the Air Force broadcaster he portrayed, Adrian Cronauer, both died with dire neurological diseases.  

Rick Fredericksen is a writer and journalist who lives in Norwalk, Iowa. He served in South Vietnam in 1969-70 and worked for CBS News, based in Thailand, from 1985 to 1995. He is the author of  Broadcasters: Unknown Chaos and Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Hot Mics and TV Lights: The American Forces Vietnam Network  NOW AVAILABLE 

I invite Old Asia Hands to explore my new book, written with lead author Mark Yablonka. This is truly a comprehensive summary of the wartime radio/TV service for the vast audience in South Vietnam. Veterans, Vietnamese and pleasure readers will all find this a fascinating addition to your Vietnam library. It is much more than a wartime book; sometimes joyful, sometimes sad, but always entertaining. Topics include the introduction of television to Vietnam; key on-air personalities, including Bobbie the weather girl, deejay Pat Sajak; the only female soldier to be assigned to AFVN; the movie "Good Morning, Vietnam; controversy and the tragic casualties that struck the network. An inside look at the broadcast organization comes from the dozens of AFVN veterans who share their stories--in their own words. Hot Mics and TV Lights is available in both paperback and digital editions. Buy Here

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Achievement Award From My Peers

"Be accurate, fair and non-partisan." (Photo by Cliff Brockman)

It was a gratifying honor for me to stand before nearly 100 Iowa broadcast journalists to accept one of Iowa's most prestigious awards, on April 29th, 2023. The Jack Shelly Award has been presented annually to outstanding Iowans for more than a half century by the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

Shelley was a beloved pioneer in Iowa broadcasting. He was the first news director for WHO TV in Des Moines, the legendary station where Ronald Reagan worked. Shelley filed radio reports from WWII and was on the battleship U.S.S. Missouri to witness the Japanese surrender. Later in his career, he taught journalism at Iowa State University

The photo at left shows Jack helping me carry award plaques after the 1997 IBNA awards convention, when I was news director for WOI Radio in Ames. He passed away in 2010. Numerous former colleagues have won the award before me, including my former bosses at KCCI TV, Russ Van Dyke and Paul Rhoades, who were valuable mentors early in my career.

I was genuinely moved as I observed fellow broadcasters react to a news feature that KCCI telecast when I retired in 2016. It reviewed my career from the early days as an AFVN newsman in the Vietnam War, my time with KGMB in Hawaii, 10 years with CBS News in Southeast Asia, and finally, my long run with WOI and Iowa Public Radio. After leaving broadcasting, I was a contributing writer for Vietnam magazine.

The awards ceremony was held at Prairie Meadows Events Center and the attendees were so nice and polite I can hardly describe my emotions.I love the photo below, where I was flanked by IBNA members as they encouraged me on.

In my brief comments, I touched on the disturbing aspects of the current media landscape: "It is a challenging time for our profession; newsroom layoffs, newspapers closing; public trust in the media embarrassingly low. The best way to overcome this is to be accurate, fair and non-partisan, the old-school journalism I learned."

It was a night I will forever cherish. I just wish Jack Shelly was there. Thanks a hundred times to the Iowa Broadcast News Association. Finally, I attach the video that was prepared by KCCI and shown to the audience as a set-up to announcing the 2023 Jack Shelly Award.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Update on famous Siamese twins in Vietnam

Duc is honored at the Japanese Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City (Mainichi photo)

I met Nguyen Duc in Saigon when he was 13 years old and in 6th grade. He was living in Tu Du Hospital on a floor reserved for Peace Village International, a German charity that specialized in treating kids with birth deformities. There were 36 children when I was there; many were suspected victims of the Agent Orange defoliant which was widely used during the war. Duc told me he wanted to be a doctor.

At age 13, Duc was in a wheelchair

I was heartened recently when his present-day photo was published in a story by the Japanese daily newspaper Mainichi. Duc, who is now 40, was being presented with an award by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Not only was he very much alive, but he was out of his wheelchair and able to stand on his only leg, with the assistance of a crutch.

I was introduced to Duc, and his brother, Viet, during a 1994 research project for the CBS News documentary 60 Minutes. The conjoined twins had undergone successful separation surgery at the age of seven. When I photographed Viet, he was confined to bed and was unresponsive. Sadly, the Mainichi news story said that Viet had died at the age of 26, from “pneumonia and other complications.”

I snapped this photo of Viet 13 years before he died.

My mission for 60 Minutes was to advance a major TV magazine story on the tragedy of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Correspondent Ed Bradley was the designated reporter. I have written extensively about my investigation, which included a field trip into the Mekong Delta, visits with grieving parents in their villages and onsite visits to various institutions. The full story is told in my digital book, Broadcasters: Untold Chaos.

Of the many conjoined fetuses that were referred to Tu Du Hospital, Duc is the most fortunate. There is a “collection room” at Tu Du that holds the grotesque remains of many aborted births, submerged in formaldehyde—Siamese twins and triplets among the specimens.  

At the time, I sympathized with the many devastated families who decided to terminate full term births, but I did not have a personal stake in the story. Now I do. I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease two years ago, and my doctors at the Veterans Administration say it is likely caused by exposure to Agent Orange. I was a young Marine in South Vietnam in 1969-70.

In search of Agent Orange victims in the Mekong Delta

Beyond meeting Duc 28 years ago, we now have another common bond in our suspected connection to the infamous wartime herbicide. Seeing his contemporary photo denotes a rare triumph in the continuing saga of Agent Orange.

According to the Parkinson’s Foundation, approximately 1-million Americans are now living with the hideous disease; about one in 10 are veterans. My doctors at the VA are seeing a dramatic increase in Parkinson’s patients as symptoms emerge decades after exposure.

American organizations like Veterans for Peace have sent representatives to Vietnam to offer support for Agent Orange awareness. The U.S. Government has provided funding to clean up major toxic sites where the chemical operations were based.

Duc has realized one of his childhood dreams. While not a doctor, he is working at Tu Du Hospital where he has spent most of his life, and where he cares for orphans and other children who are thought to be victims of Agent Orange, like him.

He remains a national role model, just as he and his brother were as children when they survived the risky procedure to separate the twins. Given celebrity media status, I was among the foreign reporters who wanted to meet Duc, and I remember him as inquisitive, bright and energetic—the ideal poster boy to represent innocent Agent Orange victims.

Aborted fetuses, badly deformed, are held in the "collection room."

During the award ceremony honoring him, Duc expressed a desire to leverage international support as Vietnam battles its Agent Orange legacy, saying, “I would like to make efforts in continuing to serve as a bridge between Japan and Vietnam.”

It’s been 60 years since the U.S. military launched Operation Ranch Hand, the widespread application of Agent Orange and other herbicides. Personnel adopted Smokey Bear as their unofficial mascot, according to James G. Lewis, writing for the American Society for Environmental History. Placards soon appeared on Ranch Hand installations, according to Lewis, but Smokey’s signature slogan had been altered, in a way that is haunting today: “Only you can prevent a forest.” 

On a daily basis, Americans and Vietnamese get a frightening diagnosis that could be connected to Agent Orange exposure; cancers, nerve and brain disorders, among others. It is uncertain just how far the damage has moved into the gene pool, possibly triggering maladies for generations.

In 2016, when Vietnam Veterans of America hosted a hearing on the impact of defoliants in Des Moines, an old vet in the audience wore a T-shirt that expresses the frustration that Vietnam War veterans will carry for the rest of their lives: “And the body count continues.”


Monday, April 5, 2021

Vietnam’s 1st Marathon: Controversy, Bill Rodgers and Dehydration


At the finish line, Vietnam War combat photographer Tim Page awaits the winner

The protracted Vietnam War has been described as a marathon. Conversely, Vietnam’s first marathon was the after-war, with lingering conflict, but also with flickers of cathartic healing. I was there covering the 1992 Ho Chi Minh City Marathon for CBS News; part war correspondent, and part sports reporter.

Among the hundreds of competitors were American war veterans, including disabled vets in the wheelchair division. The government had welcomed men and women from more than two dozen countries in a competition that would show the international community that Vietnam had emerged onto the world stage.

Race headquarters at the Saigon Floating Hotel
The most celebrated American athlete was Bill Rodgers, a wartime conscientious objector who did alternate service as a patient transporter at a hospital in Boston. While watching the Boston Marathon, Rodgers revived his interest in running going back to his college days. Then, in 1975, nine days before the fall of Saigon, Rodgers won the Boston Marathon, setting an American record (2:09:55).

By the time he laced up his running shoes on his first visit to Vietnam, Rodgers was competing in the masters division for runners over 40. “Marathoning is more than just a sport,” he told me during an interview in his hotel room. “The barriers fall in this sport. It’s a way for a lot of different people to look at some of the difficult times of the past and look to the future, and feel better about things.”

At a ceremony on the eve of the marathon, American veteran wheelchair competitors presented wheelchairs to disabled Vietnamese athletes, and Rodgers approved of the gesture. “I think it’s certainly time for improved relations and I think most people in the Untied States and Vietnam feel the same way.”

Runners passed by the People's Committee Building (City Hall)

Race day weather was typical for the month of February: dry with an average high of 92F (34C). Rodgers was concerned about the heat and humidity. Plus, he’d recently recovered from an injury. “Extreme caution” was his strategy: “They say the marathon begins at about 20 miles. You got to get to 20 miles and feel at least somewhat capable of finishing.”

Controversy erupted even before the starting gun was fired. As thousands of curious spectators had crowded around the starting line and along the 26 mile long course, a technicality eliminated the three American wheelchair athletes representing the California Paralyzed Veterans Association. Vietnamese race officials had safety concerns about road conditions. The Americans were crushed, but accepted the decision with grace.

However, a hidden factor may also have influenced the decision. As I reported for CBS News, “There are no Vietnamese wheelchair athletes which may have reflected on the poor conditions of Vietnam’s own massive disabled population.” 

Then there was the daring protester who caused a stir outside the riverside hotel serving as race headquarters. A lone Vietnamese man—some say he had a gun—climbed atop a vehicle and hoisted the flag of the old U.S.-backed Saigon Government, threatening anyone who approached.

Communist Vietnam has no tolerance for anti-government protests. Authorities swiftly rushed the man and took him into custody. Several Western photographers and a TV crew were stunned when security officials seized their film. 

Rodgers gets icy relief. Runner's World photo
To beat the heat, the marathon start time was 6 a.m. While impossible to verify, one published report estimated that hundreds of thousands of mostly Vietnamese had watched the runners at some point of the race.

The course took the athletes past old Saigon’s most recognizable landmarks: the former French hotel that was known as City Hall during the American War; the abandoned U.S. Embassy (now demolished), which served as the final evacuation point before the fall of South Vietnam; and Tu Do Street, the entertainment quarter where Americans congregated to let off steam.

Hundreds of runners from dozens of countries were represented. Major media organizations dispatched reporters and photographers to record one of the biggest events since reunification, 17 years earlier. It was Vietnam’s coming out party, showcasing former enemies running side by side.

The finish line, where onlookers had gathered to watch runners complete the grueling endurance test, was opposite the former Presidential Palace, where communist tanks had crashed through the front gates in 1975, signaling the end of the epic war.

The fastest competitor was a 36 year old British man, Tim Soutar, who practiced law in Hong Kong. His time was 2:43:26. Vietnam’s Luu Van Hung was second, while compatriot Dang Thi Teo won the women’s division.

As for Rodgers, he was leading after 22 miles, but wilted under the tortuous humidity. "As I was looking for water after cramps stopped me, a Vietnamese woman on a scooter came alongside me and asked if I was OK. I asked for water and she went into a house and brought me a big glass of water and a huge chunk of ice," Rodgers remembered. "I guzzled the water and walked/jogged to the finish." The massive number of spectators reminded him of the Boston and New York marathons.

Californian Jim Barker was the fastest Vietnam veteran. He told reporters, “I’ve run through death and life and through death again. And I’m here again as a grateful survivor from the times of war to the times of a growing sense of peace.” Barker was a Vietnamese language interpreter for the U.S. Army.

Apocalypse Now bar photo

One of the more colorful post-race social venues was not officially sanctioned, but enjoyed as a reminder of the Vietnam War: Apocalypse Now bar. Located in a narrow shop house in the former red light district, the small pub took its name—and logo—from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 war film, Apocalypse Now.

Athletes joined tourists, journalists, businessmen and locals for an evening of boisterous merrymaking, surrounded by walls painted “night mission” black. Under the ceiling fan, which also served as rotor blades for the Huey helicopter painted on the ceiling, patrons re-hydrated with Tiger Beer and the Vietnamese beer label “33”.

Occasionally a joint was passed between patrons as Hippy Hippy Shake and other rock tunes blared from the speakers. Two customers giggled as they imagined a future marathon with a special cyclo division, for the venerable bicycle taxis that were plentiful on the streets of old Saigon.


Human powered cyclos were common in old Saigon, but rare today.

Nearly 30 years after Vietnam’s premier marathon and in the mood for reminiscing, I reconnected with Bill Rodgers in 2021. He eagerly replied with nostalgia, starting with his recollection of watching tragic war stories on the Walter Cronkite evening news.

Several of his high school classmates had gone to Vietnam. One buddy, who helped Bill with his math, went to war, got into drugs, came home and was sentenced to prison. But he later became a chef and is doing fine now.

Rodgers mentioned a veteran who recovered from a helicopter crash, went on to co-found the Greater Boston Track Club and later coached Joan Benoit Samuelson, who would win the marathon gold medal at the LA Olympics in 1984.

Rodgers sent me a photo of his runner's certificate.

Rodgers revealed that he initially was not inclined to participate in the Ho Chi Minh City Marathon. “I thought many people would be angry here in the U.S., especially veterans and their families,” he told me. Keep in mind, the trade embargo was still in place in 1992 and some families of servicemen missing in action had doubts about Hanoi’s openness in accounting for U.S. MIAs.

Ultimately, Rodgers decided to run: “I thought, I’ll try to win the race and I’ll represent the U.S. Is that small effort a bit of healing? I think it was.”

The former Olympian’s most treasured Saigon memory centers around the official ceremony, where American disabled vets presented wheelchairs to their Vietnamese counterparts. “It was an incredible sight,” Rodgers said. “Words can’t describe seeing that.” Participants were given certificates and Rodgers proudly sent me a photo of his.

“Rick, I’m still a runner . . . of sorts,” Bill told me. “I ran my last marathon at 61, one year after my surgery for prostate cancer.” Formerly ranked #1 in the world, Rodgers still loves going to races, at the age of 73.

Group photo of vets with Rodgers (right). Photo from Jim Barker (center)

Friday, November 20, 2020

Historic Video of Postwar Saigon in 1986

In the gift shop at the historic Continental

Eleven years after the fall of Saigon, I videotaped some of the city's best-known landmarks. It was my first trip back since I served in Vietnam in 1969/70. In 1986, the economy had collapsed without American support and the U.S. embargo was strictly adhered to. It was a dark place with many southerners in re-education camps and others trying to flee the country. With Vietnam's economic rebound still years away, the old city looked much as it did when the U.S. was present. Strikingly missing are the traffic jams and U.S. military personnel. The video is unedited and runs about 18 minutes. Thanks to Cortney Kintzer and Brad Harvey.