COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — On this Veterans Day it is appropriate to remember the soldiers who fought in Vietnam five decades ago.
Their stories are important ones. And every soldier has a story. But not many Vietnam veterans have that story illustrated with thousands of pictures from the war zone.
Jim Louge does.
Gary Ford and Louge told a story of Vietnam through pictures. Jim’s pictures.
“I was an Infantryman in Vietnam, but I carried a camera because I was a professional photographer before I went to Nam,” Louge said. “Of course, they did not need combat photographers. They needed Infantrymen.”
But the trained photographer in Jim needed the camera and the comfort and solace it brought in a place far from his New Jersey home.
“To keep my mind off the war during slow times, I would take pictures of the guys,” Louge said. “And send the film home. My Dad would process it, and send it back with proof sheets. And then I would take orders from the guys for the pictures they wanted.”
Instead of telling Jim to put down his camera, the commander, his platoon, and the entire company got comfortable with the idea that Jim would be taking pictures.
“The commander loved the camera,” Louge said. “He loved having his picture taken. … I became his radio operator. So, I had access to more information than other people did. And I was able to go photograph different units that I wouldn’t have normally been able to if I had been stuck in one platoon.”
All of the pictures were taken during Jim’s year-long deployment in 1969 and ‘70.
Thirty years later, all of those memories came rushing back. His father had died and he was cleaning out the attic.
“I found all of these negatives and I found all of these letters with all of these addresses,” Louge said.
He began reaching out to people, but the effort did not get serious until he met Gary Ford, an Alabama writer who was working with an art museum in Louisiana on a Vietnam project.
In 2012 they began to interview 71 soldiers and surviving family members with the goal to do a book.
The result was “Rain in Our Hearts” — it was a line taken out of the movie “All Quiet on the Western Front.” It was published in 2020 by Texas Tech University Press.
“In interviewing these men when the little red light of my recorder went on, the first thing often they said was, ‘I have never talked about the war. It became a time where they felt like, I needed to tell my story,” Ford said.
Jim’s pictures and credibility opened doors – and hearts.
“The reason those men talked to me is because of Jim,” Ford said. ” … We were not looking for war stories, but life stories.”
The journey took them across the country – and back to Vietnam.
“We actually found a fellow I had photographed,” Louge said. “And got to meet with him and his family. He was a youngster at the time. He’s now 50 years old.”
The project allowed Jim to deal with the mental and emotional scars left by his Vietnam experience.
“I used the pictures to help with my PTSD,” Louge said. “My psychiatrist told me to go through the pictures several times. … You got used to it. And it became mundane instead of being … ”
And it allowed Gary to work through some of the decisions he made at that time in his life.
“I finished college in August of ‘71,” Ford said. “I joined a National Guard unit in my hometown. I freely admit that I did not want to go to Vietnam, particularly in the state the Army was in those days. … People may call me a National Guard wimp. That’s fine. I don’t care. But I served.”
There’s one question left that I wanted to ask Louge.
At the end of the day, what was more powerful, that camera or that gun?
His response came quickly.
“The camera, by all means. It was my release,” Louge said. “Like I said, it was the way I got my mind off the war. You know, the gun was important. … You never stopped worrying about being shot or attacked. Every day we were attacked in some form. Or motored, or ambushed, or something like that. The camera was the release that took the pressure off.”
If you want to get a copy of Rain in Our Hearts, it is available on Amazon and through the Texas Tech University Press.