By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
Sometimes a young student’s aspirations are altered as they mature; other times those goals are resilient and the pursuit remains a compelling one. For Shinnston native Diana Nelson Jones, she KNEW she wanted to become a writer and her ambition never wavered.
A member of the Shinnston High School Class of 1975, Diana went on to study journalism at Ohio University in Athens, OH. Her first post-graduate job was as an assistant for an Ohio legislator … and then she landed a job in her field at the Huntington Herald Dispatch where she worked for four years. She then moved to Oklahoma where she became part of the staff at the Tulsa Tribune before finding her way to Pittsburgh. She has been with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1989.
She has met a lot of people and enjoyed many experiences at the Post-Gazette … such as traveling to Mexico to interview the family of a young pitcher drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates … traveling to the ‘Big Apple’ to do a story on the paparazzi shortly after Princess Diana was killed … cruising to Greece, Israel, Turkey, and various other places to share travel stories on these interesting places. But she says her most amazing trip just took place in January of this year when she traveled to Vietnam on the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
Last summer she was pitched a story about Veterans for Peace, and she was invited to attend a Veterans Breakfast Club where vets shared their stories. One of those Veterans (George Haught) opened up to her about his efforts to heal following his service in Vietnam. He really impressed her. After having interviewed him twice, they became pretty good friends and he told her that he and members of his battalion – including their colonel – were going to return to Vietnam.
“He said, ‘You should come with us’, and after thinking about it, I knew it was something I would really like to witness,” she stated. “My editor said it was out of the question because of the cost, but I felt strongly enough about it that I put it on my credit card and went at my own expense.”
A staff photographer went along too, also at his own expense. Diana says it was worth it … an experience she will truly never forget!
She said there were many emotional moments that she witnessed as this gathering of Veterans visited places they had been before and took the same steps they have taken as soldiers. Their return was an effort to reconcile what they had been through.
Diana explained what these men had faced at Hue City. “There was an ambush, and this American battalion was a skeleton group compared to the Vietnamese. Their commanding officer, Col. Meadows, refused to take his men in because he didn’t feel they had a chance. During the trip, they walked that same bridge, and my friend George had a flashback; he had stepped back into 1968. I felt like I went with him! Some of his buddies helped him, walking the rest of the way across that bridge with him. When they reached the end, they had a prayer huddle, and they each told Colonel Meadows how thankful they were that he had refused to let them enter with an enemy flag flying. He saved their lives!” she said. “It was a momentous thing to see … these tender ex-Marines, wiping their eyes.”
While trying to heal and find some closure to their war experience, they faced many ghosts from their past. She witnessed them many times with their heads bowed, surely remembering the vivid pains of war.
George also told Diana about a time when his battalion was trying to secure a building and they were in what was a university.
“He said they had to trample over dead bodies lying on the marble floor. There was so much blood and unspeakable carnage. Trying to be normal after such an experience is unimaginable,” she added.
George admitted to Diana that he had visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. and knew that he would probably recognize so many of the names on that wall.
“But,” she said, “George told me that the wall was made of that same marble and when he noticed that, he didn’t see names of the fallen soldiers on the wall. All he saw were bloody bootprints. Those are the kinds of images that are engraved in soldiers’ minds when they return. That post-war suffering is why so many of them come home with PTSD and have to be on medication. We just can’t know how much horror and grief they endured. But people need to be open to their suffering.”
The trip to Vietnam wasn’t all emotion-packed, however. Diana said she and her soldier friends and some of their family members also saw the country from another perspective. Vietnamese people, many born AFTER the war, ride their bicycles through the cities. They have no memory of the war. It is a vibrant country where people go about their daily business making a living. Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s are even present in today’s Vietnam.
“There were good memories during the trip as well,” she continued. “When we were in Hanoi, we went to the presidential palace which is a huge tourist area. I remember there was a very tall, very military-looking older Vietnamese man there in a green uniform. One of our veterans approached him and told him we were there to see the country. They shook hands and posed for a photograph together. He saluted the American men, and seeing that kind of took me over the edge. It was as if he was saying, ‘We were ALL soldiers and I salute you’. Former enemies understanding one another’s feelings … it kind of indicates where we’ve come.”
Diana noted that her veteran friend George is on panels and talks to others about his war experiences. He saw so many horrific things; he will probably be healing until his own demise, she said.
“But I believe, as a result of this return trip to Vietnam, that at least some of these soldiers’ memories have perhaps been replaced with some new images that will help dim the old ones somewhat. They were with other guys they served with … with some of their family members accompanying them … and in a different setting. I hope with all my heart that it helped to remove some of the layers of their pain that they deal with in their dreams,” she continued.
Diana’s feature stories on her ten days in Vietnam were published upon her return. But her strong feelings for Veterans will not end there. A quite sensitive person, Diana says she will continue to report on Veterans’ issues and she wants to do something to help.
“George and I still see each other often. We’ll be ‘forever friends’,” she concluded. “I developed a personal relationship with these men and grew to love all of these ex-Marines. I consider myself the little sister to this big band of brothers! What I intend to do in the future is get involved in raising money for healing circles for Veterans. My hope is that I can do something to help them be able to peel away some of those layers of pain and be able to sleep at night without bad dreams.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Diana Nelson Jones did more than bring back a compelling story. She watched former soldiers hurt; she felt their agony; and now she wants to participate in rescuing them from their terrible memories.