‘So we don’t forget them’: Photos of Vietnam vets

A Sonoma Valley High grad breaks ground with his second photo book of war veterans, this time from Vietnam.|

The faces stare out from the past, often from a backdrop of jungle foliage. They may be wearing an old uniform, a combat helmet, a baseball cap with their VFW patch. They are older now, most in their 60s, some in their 70s or older. They are former servicemen – army infantry, navy pilots, officers and grunts. Some are women, some are Vietnamese. One is a conscientious objector who spent time in federal prison.

They are the subjects of Thomas Sanders’ new photography book, “Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices,” and their portraits – and their stories – cast rays of light into dark corners many people still have trouble facing.

In many ways it’s a follow-up to Sanders’ first book, “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of WWII” (2010). The photographer earned “non-fiction book of the year” recognition for that work when he was just 25, living in San Luis Obispo. Only after that award did he follow up with an MA in photography from San Joe State; he now lives in Georgia, with his wife Allison and their two young girls, Fiona, 4, and 1-year-old Osla, beginning his second year as a photography professor for the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

But it was in Sonoma where he took his first pictures -- in a photography class at Sonoma Valley High School. He’s a local boy: attended Dunbar and Altimira, then went the distance as a Dragon, class of 2002. His father, graphic artist and sign designer Robert Sanders, encouraged that interest in light of the fact that his own father, Tom’s grandfather, was also a photographer in his day.

The Vietnam book came directly from a class assignment at Cal Poly to photograph a portrait. As he was taking a photo of an old man at a senior living center, Sanders listened to a dramatic, graphic war story about fighting on after being grievously wounded.

His own grandfather had been a veteran of the second world war, but never talked about it.

By taking the photographs, said Sanders, “It felt like in some ways I was keeping my grandfather's story alive or, you know, the story of the World War II veterans.”

“The Last Good War” presented its readers with over 200 pages of images and stories from WWII veterans, presented against a white background or as sepia-tinted photographs from the field, from publisher Lena Tabori under the Welcome Books imprint. It was partially underwritten by Belmont Village Senior Living, a network of about 40 senior homes around the country. It was at various Belmont homes that the subjects were located.

Unlike the World War II book, which had an oral historian compiling the stories, the Vietnam book relies on recordings Sanders took and sent to Casemate editors for transcription and editing. And, unlike the design of “The Last Good War,” the Vietnam book has white type on black pages, the profiles illuminated as if coming out of the shadows, telling a grimmer tale even in design.

Many Vietnam-era vets aren’t quite ready for senior living situations like the Belmont homes. So when momentum started building for a similar Vietnam book, Sanders relied on suggestions, references and happenstance. As happened when proud father Bob Sanders started chatting with another man at Homegrown Bagels in Sonoma, and found out he was a vet.

“My dad ran into him at the bagel shop and he was wearing a VFW hat,” Sanders said. “He said, my son is working on a Vietnam book, can I get your phone number?”

Robert Lyon, now 80 and battling cancer, is well known to Sonoma as co-owner, with Robin Lyon, of the Lyon Ranch, an animal rescue and education facility off Grove Street west of Sonoma. “He came by and interviewed me last year,” Lyon recalled, and Sanders sent him a copy of the book when it was published.

“You’re going to laugh about this,” Lyon told the Index-Tribune. “I liked it, but he misspelled my last name.” It’s given a pluralizing extra “s” in the book – which Sanders lays at the feet of an overworked editorial staff in England.

While Lyon had not heard of Sanders’ earlier book about World War II veterans, he was proud to be included in this one, looking sharp in his naval summer whites, with peaked cap, ribbons and wings. Each photo in the book is accompanied by a personal story, and Lyon outlines one of his 100 missions with US Navy Fighter Squadron 53, or VF-53 Iron Angels, over North Vietnam in the late 1960s.

The brief story is a chronicle of things gone wrong on what should have been a routine surveillance flight with a novice pilot, a mission that ended with coming under intense enemy fire and the inability to rescue a downed pilot. Lyon’s story ends as best it can: “We both made it home,” an acknowledgment that many did not.

“I think they feel pretty appreciated when you say, I want to take your photo,” said Sanders. “They feel honored and it's cathartic for them.” He said there was one man, a Marine, who became red-faced furious when Sanders off-handedly asked if he had been drafted. Marines volunteer, they don’t get drafted, was the message Sanders clearly got. “He made me feel pretty dumb and stupid about that,” he said.

On the other hand, the far-left hand, Sanders included portraits of two conscientious objectors, including David Harris – who served over a year in federal prison while he was married to performer Joan Baez.

Sanders realized that it was important to honor Vietnam vets with their stories, but found that theirs were much different than their World War II counterparts. “The Vietnam veterans grew up with their dads or uncles talking about how great World War II was. They wanted to be like that and following their parents, but they didn't get that kind of reception when they came back. They didn't come back as heroes.”

In some cases in the stories, in some cases in the photos, it shows – the guilt, confusion, and emotional uncertainty just below the surface, 50 years on.

Over a year ago, Sanders met an art history professor who asked him why the Vietnam series was so important. “I didn't really know how to respond to it and it took me a good year to think about it.

“But I think it's important in our culture that we revisit these stories, that these historical stories are retold. So we don't forget them. And that's what I wish I told my professor when he asked me that question.”

So we don’t forget them.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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