REUNION: MEN OF A REAL PLATOON
This week in Hollywood, it was glitz, glamour and talk that the three Golden Globe Awards for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” might presage more honors for his powerful Vietnam War drama at Oscar time.
It was a somewhat headier setting than last month, when five men, Stone among them, came to New York to meet in a large oak-paneled room at the stately old 7th Regiment Armory here.
Their talk was of a far different world than Hollywood, a 15-years-ago world of things like beehive rounds, the NVA, 11-Bravos, lifers, LAAWs, leechers, Claymores, AKs, a place called Firebase Burt.
It was hard for some of the men to talk about sad or tragic moments. One asked that the names of three dead men he mentioned not be used, lest it cause their families further pain.
All thought that Stone’s “Platoon” would help Americans understand--at least to some degree--what the ordinary riflemen, the grunts, went through in the war.
They all laughed at John Rambo, winner of the Hollywood Medal of Honor.
“I hope this movie blows ‘Rambo’ right out of the water,” said one of the real veterans. “Yeah,” said another, “because Rambo was nothing but one hero that never went there.”
“If we’d had two Rambos, we’d have won the war,” he chuckled as two TV cameras recorded the reunion of Stone with four other ex-grunts--three of whom he’d served with in Vietnam.
Those three: Ben Fitzgerald, 43, now a die-cast operator living in Humboldt, Tenn.; Crutcher Patterson, 39, co-owner of a used auto parts yard in Pulaski, Tenn., and Jim Pappert, 38, a production mechanic in St. Louis, Mo.
They were joined by a friend of Stone’s from Los Angeles, Ruben Gomez, 45, who also was in Vietnam but not in their unit.
Their reunion was arranged by and taped for CBS’ new “The Morning Program,” which plans to air it as a four-part series next week, Tuesday through Friday, the week of the Academy Award nominations.
It was an unusual, at times quietly emotional three-hour session. It was moderated by Stone, 40, who now lives in Brentwood.
His film, while generally acclaimed, hasn’t been without controversy.
Some of the controversy comes from vets themselves, people like Jim Thomas, an Army medic at a battle called Hamburger Hill--which is both the name and basis of another Vietnam movie that recently completed filming.
Thomas, now a postal worker in Hayward, Calif., recently saw Stone’s film. In a phone interview, he said he was outraged by parts of the movie, particularly one scene in a hamlet that “made me cower down in my chair and hope no one would think I was a Vietnam veteran.”
In that scene, after a platoon member is killed, some--but by no means all--of the men in his platoon erupt in blind rage after uncovering North Vietnamese weapons and explosives hidden in the hamlet.
Thomas conceded that Vietnam was not the same war to every grunt who served there. The type of combat, a unit’s discipline and compassion or the lack of either--all that could and did vary markedly in the war.
“I’m not saying things like that didn’t happen,” the ex-medic said of the brutal hamlet scene in Stone’s film. “But it (the movie) wasn’t a representation of all of us.”
Although Stone recalled witnessing such moments when he was in Vietnam, none of the three with whom he served wanted to dwell on it, particularly Pappert, a short, bearded, soft-spoken man.
Interviewed during a pause in the CBS taping, he declined to be specific. But he told a reporter that “there were a lot of things in there (the movie) that I don’t relate to.”
More should have been shown about the ambiguous feelings of GIs toward the Vietnamese, he added: “Like when you first got there, you felt sorry for the people, the way they were being treated.
“But then it got to a point, after a period of time, that you didn’t give a damn about them. You didn’t care who they were or their feelings . . . you were just waiting for your day to get out.”
The taping session had its lighter moments, the easy banter of friendships born in war--as when Stone kidded Patterson about turning him on to pot (which, all agreed, never was smoked in the field).
“I have been known to smoke a joint, yeah,” drawled the burly Tennessean, a plain-spoken man who proved eloquent in his directness. He’d been a squad leader. He hadn’t wanted the job, he said, but “the rest of them had either gone home or got wounded or killed.”
The five covered a wide range of topics--the misery of life in the bush; racism toward the Vietnamese and among U.S. troops; the closeness of the grunts, whether black, white or Latino; the music of the time, and homecomings and problems of adjustment.
At one point, Patterson grew impatient on a different subject--when Gomez spoke of the high suicide rates of veterans and reeled off statistics about homeless Vietnam veterans in Los Angeles.
“Is it Vietnam’s fault?” he demanded.
“No, no,” Gomez said. “I think it was that America couldn’t--didn’t deal with the problem at the beginning . . . it was just like, ‘Get lost!’ ”
Patterson agreed. But he also made clear his pride and lack of self-pity as he softly added: “We’ve got to get over it sometime.”
As the taping wore on, that attitude of putting the war behind them also seemed the underlying philosophy of Pappert and Fitzgerald, the latter the only black in the group, a man Stone affectionately called “Fitz.”
At the end, Pappert, picking his words carefully and with difficulty, tried to sum up his thoughts about Vietnam.
“The best way to explain it is just this,” he said. “I’d like to put it all in my past, and hope for a better future for this country. . . . History repeats itself, but we hope it doesn’t this time.”
That night, the visitors adjourned to the Lion’s Head, a cheery Greenwich Village pub. They were later joined by Stone, retired Marine Capt. Dale Dye, who trained the actors in “Platoon” and played an Army captain in it, and Tom Cruise, the young “Top Gun” fighter pilot.
Beer and good talk flowed freely around their table.
During the CBS taping session, Fitzgerald had jokingly groused about all the guys he knew who didn’t go to Vietnam but who, when he came back, wanted him to buy them a drink.
“And they’ve been sitting home, making all the money, and here you are over there fighting all this time,” he marveled.
So that evening, someone who had been at the CBS taping and came away with a great deal of admiration for Stone’s friends from Vietnam, bought the table a round of drinks.
He made sure that Fitz got two.