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Jul 1, 2014 1:32 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Veteran, Artist Join Forces To Honor Those Who Perished In Vietnam

Jul 1, 2014 3:42 PM

On April 20, 1968, the U.S. military abandoned Khe Sanh, a base in central Vietnam that had been occupied by American forces for almost two years. Following 77 days of intense fighting, the Marines were forced to pull back due to the relentless onslaught of the North Vietnamese Army.Paul Dargan of Hampton Bays still recalls April 20, 1968, as if it were yesterday.

That morning, he stood in the Quang Tri Province, looking at the 19 rifles that had been stuck into the ground. Nineteen helmets were placed atop the rifles, one to commemorate each of his fellow Marines who did not make it through the battle—though there were hundreds of Americans, and thousands of North Vietnamese, who also did not survive.

Mr. Dargan and the members of Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion of the 26th Marines, 3rd Marine Division, mourned their loss quietly, out of fear of coming under fire again by the North Vietnamese Army.

Mr. Dargan, who was drafted in 1966 and earned the rank of an E5 sergeant, snapped a photo of the rifles and mourning soldiers with an Instamatic camera, not knowing that, nearly 45 years later, his photograph would be the inspiration for a painting called “Journey of Souls.” The painting, created by Steven Alpert of Quogue in 2012, will soon be on permanent display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia, to commemorate that moment, as well as honor all of the men who died in what turned out to be the longest battle in the Vietnam War. The unveiling is scheduled for Wednesday, July 16.

“I couldn’t believe all these guys who were killed,” Mr. Dargan said during an interview on Monday morning. “They deserved more than that.”

The Battle of Khe Sanh, as it is now known, lasted almost two years, and the battlefield was located just south of the former border that once divided North Vietnam from South Vietnam. An exact count of those killed in action, on both sides of the war, is still unknown; however, it is estimated that between 750 and 900 Americans died in the battle, while between 10,000 and 15,000 perished among the North Vietnamese Army.

Mr. Dargan explained that it was during a Veterans Day ceremony in Bridgehampton in 2011 when he first saw Mr. Alpert’s work and decided to approach the artist with the idea of making a painting from his old photograph. Mr. Alpert accepted the challenge.

“I want people to remember,” said Mr. Dargan, explaining his reasons for asking Mr. Alpert to re-create his photo.

The Vietnam veteran and his wife, Dee, have three adult children, Kalen, 34, Lindsey, 31 and Ryan, 22. As is the case with many veterans, Mr. Dargan said it is still difficult for him to talk about his experience at Khe Sanh, noting that he has lived with post-traumatic stress disorder since leaving Vietnam in 1968.

Still, he believes that it is more important to remember than to try to forget. In fact, the license plate he chose for his pickup truck reads “ksanh PD,” which stands for “Khe Sanh” and “Paul Dargan.”

“My experience never went away, but I didn’t want to forget,” he said. “So, I’ve been living with it.”

A retired television producer from Quogue, Mr. Alpert has a different set of memories from the war. He explained that was enrolled in college when the war broke out and, as a result, was not drafted. Still, avoiding serving in the military at a time of war has haunted him since then.

“I felt guilty for not going,” Mr. Alpert said on Monday, adding that he remembers feeling embarrassed by the protests and the way some Americans were conducting themselves during that tumultuous period. “Making this painting brought back all of those feelings,” he said.

To help ease his mind, Mr. Alpert said he began creating military paintings about 11 years ago. He said he was eager to make a painting from Mr. Dargan’s photo and dug in about four months after receiving it from the veteran.

But before making the first stroke, Mr. Alpert said he spent time researching the battle and refreshed his memory of the Vietnam War. He explained that he wanted the finished product—which shows 19 rifles and helmets along with three flags in the background—to evoke the right emotion. He purposely did not include any of the mourners.

“I didn’t want any living soldiers in the painting,” he said. “I wanted to focus on the men who gave their lives.”

While working on the painting, Mr. Alpert said his small studio that sits on top of his garage in Quogue was silent. Normally, he said, he listens to music and works on more than one piece at a time, but this was different.

“My studio became like a wake,” he recalled, noting that it took him five weeks to complete the painting. “Because I didn’t serve, I feel like I owe. The painting had all the underpinnings of that.”

Once the work was finished, neither of the men wanted to keep it for themselves. Both noted the catharsis brought by the image and its meaning, though neither wanted to hold onto it for too long. They then began reaching out to military galleries across the country until, by chance, Mr. Dargan struck up a conversation with the right person.

He traveled to Washington, D.C., with a group of veterans from Southampton Town in 2011 and said he met a general at a bar during the trip. That man, General George Christmas, served in Vietnam as well and put him in touch with the curator at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

Before Mr. Alpert and Mr. Dargan drive to Virginia to attend the unveiling later this month, they will attend the veterans’ ceremony at the Living Water Full Gospel Church in Riverhead on Sunday, July 6, to speak about the painting and its origins. The church is Mr. Dargan’s home parish and Sunday’s event will begin at noon.

“‘Journey of Souls’ is living on and should not be forgotten,” Mr. Dargan said. “This is a final tribute.”

He added that he has tried to contact the families of the deceased, but to no avail. Some of the survivors of the battle, he said, plan to attend the unveiling.

As for Mr. Dargan and Mr. Alpert, they said they have grown close during their shared experience and believe that their relationship could help close the gap that still exists between those who served in the war and those who remained in the states.

“You don’t have to serve in the military to be a patriot,” Mr. Dargan said.

“We have to be aware, to be grateful,” Mr. Alpert added. “The American dream has been paid for. These 19 men paid, but couldn’t live it.”

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By MACDADDY (49), SOUTHAMPTON on Jul 6, 14 12:41 PM