Photo | Vietnam War Foundation Museum from the Vietnam War Foundation
Craig LaMountain returned from Vietnam, but his brother Betal didn’t. Craig went first, and after his return, Betal was stationed in Danang. He was a naval aviator who went missing. He was never found.
“He wanted to fly from day one. Fate took him, but that’s life,” Craig said.
“I had a welcome back party my cousin attended, and he left the next day for Vietnam,” Craig said. His cousin Mickey came back, but died of cancer five years later, presumably due to Agent Orange.
These experiences began a lifelong search to keep the Vietnam War’s impact in the history books rather than overlooked.
“It started because of my brother and then my cousin. ... I couldn’t take that. I had to do something. My brother — when he was 4 years old, I was a kid — when I had a bad dream I crawled into bed with him. We were a tight-knit family.”
He saw that children weren’t learning about the war or its fallen. Armed with a slideshow, he visited area schools, explaining his story, and with it, history.
The Vietnam War Foundation museum in Ruckersville, Va., offers the hands-on educational experience of simulating stories that have gone untold and been pushed back for years.
After he retired, he moved to Virginia, hauling Vietnam War memorabilia with him, including a helicopter, and eventually started the foundation and the museum with it.
Veterans, students and tourists traveling the Washington, D.C., area sign up for the two-and-a-half-hour tour. He said active military intelligence agents visit to learn how the equipment was actually used (as opposed to what the books say) because terrorists today often use that era of technology.
LaMountain and the foundation have worked hard to recoup and restore original Vietnam War equipment and memorabilia, which includes items as thin as Craig’s draft notice to ones as massive as automobiles and aircrafts. The Western Union letter his parents received informing them Betal was missing is also on display.
Veterans helped construct the museum and keep it running. The foundation consults with men who worked with the equipment during its restoration.
The museum holds one of the largest collections of Vietnam War memorabilia in the country.
But the foundation does more than educate. It realizes the need for Vietnam veterans to be given a “place of healing.”
For Craig, that journey of healing has involved visiting the country seven times and getting to know citizens there, in addition to growing the museum.
“When you came back from Vietnam, you didn’t talk about being a Vietnam veteran,” Craig said.
As that generation of veterans ages into empty-nesters and retirees, they have more time to ruminate on their memories, Craig said. Some memories were brutal - watching comrades torn in half, while at other times there were hilarious moments of friendship.
“This all went on the backburner,” he said. “It does help — having this place.”
This kind of healing can connect coincidences into something greater, and has done this even for Craig. One visitor recognized Mickey, producing a photo of himself and Craig’s cousin smoking cigarettes on top of a vehicle.
Or it can offer release for long-repressed memories and feelings. Craig said he approached one visitor in motorcycle leathers who was sitting in a chair, looking upset. The man said the museum “just brings back a lot of memories.”
Later the man’s son came up to Craig and thanked him. His father had never talked about Vietnam before.
Another visitor, gripping the stick in the helicopter, said his memories flooded back as well. He told Craig all his VA treatment didn’t do what that one trip to the museum just did.
“So it works,” Craig said. “There’s thousands just like that. Everyone’s got a little story.”
The foundation runs on donations at the door and through the mail. In-kind donations from veterans have also aided the foundation’s mission—from construction to artifact collection. Post 74 in Charlottesville, Va., provided the asphalt driveway for handicapped visitors as well as the heating and cooling system.
Tours can be scheduled by appointment by calling 434-985-8408 or via the website, www.vietnamwarfoundation.org/.