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The Lucky Coin: How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment


The Lucky Coin

How a Vietnam War memento is helping American military return home safe from overseas deployment

 

photos by Bill Sitzmann

story by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June edition of Omaha Magazine (https://omahamagazine.com/articles/the-lucky-coin)

 

 

In the aftermath of the 1969 Tet  Offensive, U.S. Marine Pat Peterson found a Vietnamese coin on the ground while serving a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The date on the coin was 1966—the same year he graduated from Holy Name High School in Omaha. That persuaded Peterson to adopt the memento as a personal good luck charm. He carried it with his dog tags.

As the runt of his infantry squad, Peterson was often lowered by his ankles to inspect openings in underground tunnels. If he saw mounds of steaming hot food below, the tunnel was in active use by Viet Cong. Then they would pull him out and toss grenades inside. One time, after the grenades dropped, screaming women and children fled from the other end of the tunnel. That image—and other horrors—seared into his mind.

He battled post-traumatic stress from Vietnam for the rest of his life. But Peterson was a fighter; he endured, even surviving a bout with cancer.

The coin got Peterson safely home in 1970. He punched a hole in it and wore it on his keychain. He threw himself into veterans affairs. Two decades elapsed before he passed the coin to another serviceman going off to fight in the Gulf War.

So began a tradition that saw him give the coin to deploying servicemen—always on the condition they bring it back. They all did.

Homecoming and a Funeral

The last recipient to return with the coin was National Guardsman Cody Rauch, who carried it to Iraq and Afghanistan while deployed with the U.S. Army.

Now, the coin is in the hands of its latest recipient, Air Force officer Dave Shonegal.

Rauch returned the coin to Peterson in 2017. The coin’s owner passed away the following year. Peterson was 70 when he died from a brain hemorrhage in December. Rauch came to pay his respects. At the reception following the funeral at Holy Name Church, he said, “It got back to its rightful owner in time, and that’s what’s important.”

Rauch also recounted his part in the coin story. He was on leave between tours when, by chance, he and his mates ended up at Nifty Bar on the Radial Highway. The neighborhood watering hole was such a regular hangout for Peterson that a brass plate with his name engraved in it is screwed into the bar at his traditional spot.

The two men met as strangers. By the time the gregarious Peterson swapped war stories with Rauch, and everyone had washed down salutary beers and shots, they were buddies. Peterson offered his coin with the usual stipulation, “Bring it back in one piece.”

“Do you mean bring myself back in one piece, or the coin?” Rauch asked Peterson.

“Hopefully both,” Peterson replied.

Rauch accepted.

Supporting Fellow Soldiers

Peterson’s concern for active duty or retired military extended to serving as a Veterans of Foreign Wars post commander (VFW Post 2503) and as a volunteer services representative at the VA Hospital.

“He was very active in everything veterans,” says Teresa Burks, Peterson’s longtime partner who has worked as a nurse at the hospital for 32 years. “He cared deeply about veterans. He would come to the hospital for a veterans service meeting and stay there for two hours afterward just going around talking to people. ‘Hey, are they treating you right? Anything I can do?’ It was pretty cool.”

Although Teresa and Peterson never married, her son Jed Burks considered him his stepfather. Jed’s children called Peterson “Papa Pat.”

Peterson’s devotion to loved ones was rivaled only by his commitment to fellow vets.

“He would go to the end of the world to especially help another military member,” Jed says. “If he couldn’t help you, he knew enough people to direct you to whatever you needed. It didn’t matter.”

Peterson proudly wore his patriotism—bedecking himself and car with American flag symbols. His father Bernie Peterson was a wounded World War II veteran.

“You knew from way down the road that Pat was coming your way,” recalls Jed, whose oldest daughter may be entering the military in a year.

Peterson’s goodwill went beyond vets.

“He seemed to hone into people who needed help,” Teresa says. “If he knew of someone having trouble paying their utilities, he would give them some money. If somebody asked him for two dollars, he’d give them two dollars even it was his last two dollars. He was very generous.”

When it came to vets, no request was too much.

“He made sure, if anybody had surplus medical equipment, he’d get it to the VA—wheelchairs, walkers, canes,” she says.

Peterson and a fellow Marine veteran, Nick Sloan (who died in 2015), organized an annual Marine Corps birthday party at Nifty that packed the joint. The Nov. 10 bash celebrated the birth of the Marine Corps.

The Coin’s Journey Continues

The coin tradition was another aspect of Peterson’s giving.

“I thought it was a huge rite of passage to send it off with somebody else and then to get it back,” Teresa says. “I thought it was beautiful. He didn’t brag about it or anything. If he heard about somebody going, he would approach them and ask, ‘Can I give this to you as long as you bring it back?’ He felt like it was a good luck charm. But it wasn’t something he kept to himself—he shared it. It was part of his nature to care and share.”

At his standing-room-only funeral Mass, Teresa shared the tale of handing the coin off to those bound for overseas duty and her desire to continue the tradition in his memory. A nephew, Eric Peterson, knew a friend, Dave Shonegal, who was set to leave for Afghanistan in March on his sixth deployment. The nephew connected Shonegal with Teresa.

Dave Shonegal, who currently has coin

Dave Shonegal, the current keeper of the lucky coin

“She asked me if I wanted to keep on the tradition,” Shonegal says, “and I told her, ‘I’m honored to even be asked to do something like this. I’ll gladly accept this, take it on my trip, and bring it back.’

Shonegal is the coin’s seventh recipient in a tradition now spanning multiple generations, different military branches, and various theaters of war.

Teresa entrusted it to Shonegal on Feb. 16 at a going-away party at American Legion Post 374 in Millard.

The legacy he inherited is not lost on him.

“We’re talking 50 years. I don’t think I’ve heard of anything like this that longstanding, especially getting passed onto strangers,” he says. “It’s kind of crazy, but at the same time really cool. A responsibility comes with it. It’s now my responsibility to carry on this tradition. There’s a  little nervousness about that. I don’t want to be the one that loses it after all these years.”

Shonegal says the legacy will continue after his return from deployment.

“It’s something I hope that, even after I give it back, continues for as long as it can—until we’re done deploying or there’s just nobody left to give it to,” he says. “It’s a really neat story and something I really feel needs to be shared as much as possible.”

Teresa agrees.

“I feel honored, absolutely honored,” she says, “and very, very proud. Pat would be proud.”

She says it was important for her to convey to Shonegal what kind of man Peterson was “because he’s carrying a piece of Pat with him.”

“I told him, ‘I want you to know who you’re carrying,’” she says.

The Legacy of a Lucky Coin

Shonegal is sure he and Peterson would have made fast friends.

“He was for the vets, and I can always stand with a guy like that,” Shonegal says. “That’s really where I feel like I’m heading. When I hang up the uniform, my next purpose is to help veterans in many of their situations.”

Jed learned about the coin in the wake of  Peterson’s death, and it only confirmed what he already knew about his stepfather.

“Learning about the coin was awesome,” he says, “but it didn’t change anything for me because that was him. Not one part of the story of the coin surprised me because he always went above and beyond the call of duty to pay it forward to military members.

“For me, it embodied what Pat was about—taking care of people. That good luck coin got him through Vietnam, and that’s why he passed it on—to take care of others. For me, it showed that even when you’re done [serving], you’re not done. You still take care of your brothers and sisters in the military. It’s a family.”

Inspired by Peterson’s example, Jed began practicing mindfulness.

“I’ve changed a lot of things about myself as far as showing more gratitude, telling people I’m proud of them, thanking them for being part of my life—things that Pat did and that I didn’t tell him enough,” Jed says.

He’s also taken a cue from Peterson’s charity.

“There have been multiple times when I thought, I wish I could help, but I can only do this,’” he says. “Well, why not only just do that? Maybe that’s more than enough. To me, it might be small, but to somebody else it might be huge.”

Meanwhile, Teresa is keeping Peterson’s legacy and wishes alive through the coin. After traveling around the world multiple times, surviving dangerous treks, and escaping so many life-and-death firefights, she says there is still plenty of life left in this memento from the Vietnam War.

“It was very important to him to keep it going, so I’m not going to let it go,” Teresa says.

She suspects many of us carry a protective token.   

“Maybe you don’t know what your good luck charm is,” she says. “If you do, hold that piece dear and share it with others.”

An internment for Pat Peterson is pending at Omaha National Cemetery. The date was not confirmed when this edition of Omaha Magazine went to press.


This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha MagazineTo receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Vietnamese coin

Life Itself XV: War stories

August 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Life Itself XV: War stories

In their own words – The Greatest Generation on World War II

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/in-their-own-wor…-on-world-war-ii/ 

The tail-gunner’s grandson: Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/the-tail-gunners…on-foot-and-film/

Love affair with Afghanistan and international studies affords Tom Gouttierre world view like few others

https://leoadambiga.com/2017/02/21/love-affair-with…-like-few-others

Retired warrior, lifetime scholar John Nagl became U.S. Army counterinsurgency guru

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/09/30/retired-warrior-…rinsurgency-guru/

 

The Reader Oct. 3, 2013

 

Iraq War veteran Jacob Hausman battles PTSD and finds peace

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/10/31/iraq-war-veteran…-and-finds-peace

Retired Omaha World-Herald military affairs newsman Howard Silber: War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/06/retired-omaha-wo…nt-globe-trotter/

Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/11/07/milton-kleinberg…on-of-his-memoir

Joseph Dumba and his Healing Kadi Foundation make medical mission trips to South Sudan

https://leoadambiga.com/2014/01/03/joseph-dumba-and…s-to-south-sudan/

Jacob Hausman, ©photo by Bill Sitzman

Cover Image OM1212

 

Having survived war in Sudan, refugee Akoy Agau discovered hoops in America and the major college recruit is now poised to lead Omaha Central to a third straight state title

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/01/having-survived-…ight-state-title

From wars to Olympics, world-class photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke shoots it all, and now his discerning eye is trained on Husker football

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/23/from-wars-to-oly…-husker-football

 

By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans performed far-flung wartime duties

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/22/by-land-by-sea-b…g-wartime-duties/

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, old wars, new wars, endings and new beginnings

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/01/27/bob-kerrey-weigh…d-new-beginnings

Ben Kuroki: A distinguished military career by a most honorable man

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/17/ben-kuroki-a-dis…st-honorable-man/

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki: New book out about Nebraskan who defied prejudice to become a war hero

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/12/30/the-two-wars-of-…ecome-a-war-hero

 

Ben Kuroki

Ben Kuroki

 

 

Bill Ramsey, Marine: A Korean War Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/a-korean-war-story-2/

Brenda Allen’s real life country music drama took her from Nebraska to Vietnam to Vegas

https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/01/brenda-allens-re…vietnam-to-vegas

Lauro play “A Piece of My Heart” dramatizes role of women in war zones

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/a-piece-of-my-he…women-in-wartime/

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin sees no incongruity in being rodeo cowboy, concert classical guitarist, music educator and Vietnam combat vet

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/10/17/from-the-archive…etnam-combat-vet

 

Brenda Cover (reduced)

Brenda Allen wearing the green beret and insignia

 

The Vietnam Women’s Memorial

 

The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/the-life-and-tim…ionist-sol-bloom

Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/04/104

Holocaust rescue mission undertaken by immigrant Nebraskan comes to light: How David Kaufmann saved hundreds of family members from Nazi Germany

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/10/david-kaufmann-a…escuer-from-afar

Art trumps hate: “Brundinar” children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/01/15/art-trumps-hate-…om-the-holocaust/

 

 

Kitty Williams prays at her mother’s grave

 

UNO Center for Afghanistan Studies plays role in multi-national efforts to restore Afghan educational system

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/25/uno-center-for-a…ucational-system/

UNO Afghanistan Teacher Education Project trains women educators from the embattled nation

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/20/uno-afghanistan-…embattled-nation

 

Afghan teachers training at UNO met with First Lady Laura Bush

 

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/james-martin-dav…halls-of-justice

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/combat-sniper-tu…d-enigmatic-work

Jesuit photojournalist Don Doll of Creighton University documents the global human condition – one person, one image at a time

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/23/jesuit-photojour…-human-condition

 

Don Doll

 

A Long Way from Home: Two Kosovo Albanian families escape hell to start over in America

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/a-long-way-from-home

War and Peace: Bosnian refugees purge war’s horrors in song and dance that make plea for harmony

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/18/war-and-peace

Thomas Gouttierre: In Search of a Lost Dream, An American’s Afghan Odyssey

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/19/in-search-of-a-l…s-afghan-odyssey/

Three old wise men of journalism – Hlavacek, Michaels and Desfor – recall their foreign correspondent careers and reflect on the world today

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/18/three-old-wise-men-of-journalism

 

 

John and Pegge Hlavacek’s globe-trotting adventures as foreign correspondents

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/02/john-and-pegge-h…n-correspondents/ 

“Casablanca” – Film classic still enchants as time goes by

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/10/10/casablanca-a-fil…-as-time-goes-by/

 

John Hlavacek

John Hlavacek

 

Billy Melton served with Omaha’s “Sweet Sixteen” in the all black 530th Quartermaster Battalion

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/04/30/omahas-sweet-six…master-battalion/

Omaha’s Tuskegee Airmen

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/the-tuskegee-airmen/

 

14379473632092.jpg

 

Chuck Powell: A Berlin Airlift Story

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/18/a-berlin-airlift-story/

From the Archives: Veterans Cast Watchful Eye on the VA Medical Center     

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/08/from-the-archive…a-medical-center

 

 

Bringing to light hidden heroes of the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/bringing-to-ligh…of-the-holocaust/

Ben Nachman’s mission

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/ben-nachmans-mission

Ben Nachman: At work in the fields of the righteous

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/09/02/at-work-in-the-f…of-the-righteous

Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/29/rescuer-curricul…on-the-holocaust

The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/01/the-escape-artist

Walter Reed: Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/19/walter-reed-from…-in-world-war-ii

 

Walter Reed with a close friend who would
perish not long thereafter

 

The Hidden Child revealed: Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/the-hidden-child…kader-tom-jaeger

Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/lolas-story-out-…destined-to-live

Holocast survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/27/holocast-survivo…r-destinys-child/

A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/08/a-not-so-average…tory-of-survival

Sisters of the Shoah: Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills

https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/18/sisters-of-the-s…three-iron-wills/

Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories

https://leoadambiga.com/2018/03/15/bea-karp-holocau…painful-memories

Nebraska Medal of Honor winners: Above and beyond the call of duty

August 11, 2012 1 comment

I generally don’t hold with designating individuals as heroes in any field of endeavor, much less honoring the efforts of combat participants, but I have no trouble understanding people’s need to acknowledge, recognize, and commemorate the deeds of the valiant.  This is a short story about some Nebraska Medal of Honor recipients whose lives and valor were the subject of an exhibition a few years ago at El Museo Latino in Omaha.  The institution was a good home for the exhibit because two of the state’s Medal of Honor winners were young Latino men: Edward “Babe” Gomez and Keith Miguel.  A legend is also among their ranks in the person of William F. Cody, better known to some as Buffalo Bill.  A once prominent politician now looking to reenter the political arena, former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, is also among the state’s Medal of Honor men.

 

 

 

 

 

Nebraska Medal of Honor winners: Above and beyond the call of duty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

A new historical exhibition at El Museo Latino pays tribute to Nebraska’s Medal of Honor recipients. Among the honorees are Edward “Babe” Gomez and Miguel Keith and former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey.

The Congressional Medal of Honor is the highest U.S. military decoration. It is bestowed by Congress to armed forces members who distinguish themselves “conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity,” risking life “above and beyond the call of duty” in action.

Nebraska’s accredited with 18 Medal of Honor recipients in conflicts as far back as the Civil War and on through two world wars, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill, received the Medal for his work as a civilian scout with the 3rd Cavalry during Indian campaigns along the Platte River in the early years of Nebraska’s statehood.

Otto Diller Schmidt of Blair received the Medal during peacetime when, while serving on board the U.S.S. Bennington, he displayed “extraordinary heroism” following a 1905 boiler explosion.

Gomez, an Omaha native, attended South High School and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps reserves at 17. He was called to active duty with the 1st Marine Division in Korea. During a fateful 1951 battle he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as an Easy Company ammunition bearer. When a hostile grenade landed amidst his squad, he sacrificed himself by absorbing the explosion.

Keith, a San Antonio, Texas native, moved to Omaha, where he attended North High. He fought as a Marine Corps machine gunner in Vietnam. During a 1971 attack he was hit multiple times but kept fighting to protect his unit’s command post until mortally wounded.

Kerrey, a Lincoln native, led a Navy SEAL team in Vietnam. During a 1969 mission to capture intelligence assets his team came under fire. Despite massive wounds he directed a successful counterattack. He lost part of a leg as a result of the engagement.

Eight recipients born in Nebraska have their Medal accredited to other states where they resided or enlisted. Among their ranks is the most recent recipient with Nebraska ties, Randall Shughart, a Lincoln native who entered the service in Newell, Pa., where he and his family moved. Shughart fought in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia as part of a Special Ops Army team inserted to rescue the crew of a downed U.S. helicopter. While under siege he applied fire that allowed the crew’s rescue. He sustained fatal wounds.

El Museo Latino director Magdalena Garcia says the exhibit highlights how America honor its military heroes and how Nebraskans contribute to defending freedom. The images and text, including Medal of Honor citations, help provide a timeline and context for the various wars and conflicts America’s fought, she says.

Outside of Bob Kerrey, perhaps the best known native Nebraska recipient is Gomez. One of 13 children, Gomez is recalled as “happy-go-lucky,” an “extrovert” and “a go-getter” by younger brother Modesto Gomez. He says Babe, a scrappy 5-foot-1 former Golden Gloves boxer served a year at the former Kearney reform school before turning his life around. He wore their father down insisting he be allowed to join the Marines.

 

 

William F. Cody, aka Buffalo Bill

 Image result for edward babe gomez

Edward “Babe” Gomez

 

Miguel Keith

 

Bob Kerrey

 

 

A letter from Babe before his final, fateful mission seemed to signal his own foreboding. Eva Sandoval says, “He wrote, ‘Remind the kids of me once in awhile,’” referring to young siblings who had indistinct memories of him before he left for Korea.

Eva and her mother Matiana were at home when a Western Union messenger delivered the telegram announcing his death.

“My mother said I went into hysterics,” says Eva. “It was really a shock to me. He was just a year older than I. He was so young when he died. I couldn’t believe it. In my mind I’d say, Oh, he’s coming back — it was a big mistake. I didn’t want to accept he’s gone for good.”

Babe’s selfless actions reflected his upbringing, says Modesto. “He was prepared to do what he had to do because that’s just the way we were raised. ‘Get in there and get it’ my dad used to say. You just do the right thing.”

The Medal was presented to Babe’s family at an Our Lady of Guadalupe ceremony.

Gomez’s legacy lives on in a mural at the Nebraska State Capitol and in Nebraska Medal of Honor displays at the American GI Forum, Omaha-Douglas Civic Center and Durham Museum. A local school and avenue bear his name.

“All of these things they’ve done in his name have been a tremendous honor,” says Modesto.

Gomez is buried at St. Mary Cemetery in South Omaha.

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin sees no incongruity in being rodeo cowboy, concert classical guitarist, music educator and Vietnam combat vet

October 17, 2011 6 comments

When I saw Hadely Heavin perform classical guitar at the Joslyn Art Museum in the late 1980s I knew I had to write about him one day, and in 1990 I sought him out as one of my first freelance profile subjects. I’ve culled that resuling story from my archives for you to read below. What I didn’t know when I interviewed him that first time is what a remarkable story he has. I mean, how many world-class classical guitarists are there that also compete in rodeo? How many are combat war veterans? What are the chances that an inexperienced American player (Heavin) would be selected by a Spanish master (Segundo Pastor) to become the maestro’s only student in Spain? I always knew I wanted to revisit Heavin’s story and nearly two decades later I did. That more recent and expansive portrait of Heavin can also be found on this blog, entitled, “Hadley Heavin’s Idiosyncratic Journey as a Real Rootin-Tootin, Classical Guitar Playing Cowboy.” When I wrote the original article posted here Heavin’s mentor, Segundo Pastor, was still alive. Pastor has since passed away but his influence will never leave the protege. Heavin was still doing some rodeoing as of three or four years ago, when I did the follow-up story, but even if he has completely given up the sport he’ll always do something with horses because his love for horses is just that deep in him. The same as music is. I hope you enjoy these pieces on this consumate artist and athlete.

 

 

 

From the Archives: Hadley Heavin sees no incongruity in being rodeo cowboy, concert classical guitarist, music educator and Vietnam combat ve

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally published in the Omaha Metro Update

 

Hadley Heavin defies pigeonholing, The 41-year-old Omaha resident is an internationally renowned classical guitarist, but to ranchers in rural Nebraska he’s better known as a good rodeo hand. The University of Nebraska at Omaha instructor’s life has been full of such seeming incongruities from the very start.

Back in his native Kansas Heavin is as likely to be remembered for being a precocious child musician as an expert bareback bronc rider, star high school athlete and Vietnam War veteran. Today, despite lofty success as a touring performer, Heavin is perhaps proudest of being a husband and new father. He and his wife, Melanie, became first-time parents last year when their girl, Kaitlin, was born.

Music, though, has been the one unifying force in his life. His earliest memories of the Ozarks are filled with gospel harmonies and jazz, ragtime and country rhythms. Home for the Heavin clan was Baxter Springs, Kan., five miles froom the Oklahoma and Missouri borders.

“Basically I grew up with music and I’ve been playing it since I was 5. My father was a jazz guitarist and always had bands,” said Heavin. adding that his late father played a spell with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Heavin hit the road with his old man at age 7, playing drums, trumpet and occasional guitar at dances and socials.

“I was a little freak because I could play really well. I loved it, but it got to be a chore. I remember about midnight I’d start falling asleep. My dad would start to feel the time dragging and see me nodding, then he’d flick me ont he head with his fingertip and wake me up, and I’d speed up again.

“Most of my fellow students at school didn’t know I was doing this. I didn’t think I was doing anything special because everyone in my family were musicians. I grew up in that environment thinking everybody was like this. I couldn’t believe it when a kid couldn’t sing or carry a tune or do something with music.”

When Heavin was all of 11 he started playing rock ‘n’ roll, an experience, he said, that left him burned out on music, especially rock.

“I’m glad I got burned out on that when I did because I’ve still got students in their 20s trying to study classical guitar and wanting to play rock ‘n’ roll. They want to have fun,” he said disparagingly. “They just don’t realize rock is not an art form in the same sense. Classical guitar requires a lot of work and soul searching.”

Heavin doesn’t mince words when it comes to music. Since he studied in Spain with maestro Segundo Pastor, he performs and teaches the traditional romantic repertoire that originated there. He feels the music is a deep. direct reflection of the Spanish people, with whom he feels a kinship.

“Spanish people are much warmer than Americans. We’re not brought up with the passion those people are brought up with. That’s why I prefer listening to European artists.”

He said classical guitar “demands” a passionate, expressive quality he finds lacking in most American guitarists with the exception of Christopher Parkening.

“Who a student studies with makes a big difference. I don’t think I ever would have played the way I do if I had never studied with Segundo.”

Heavin feels Pastor selected him as a student because he saw a hungry young musician with a burning passion.

“He wouldn’t have been interested if he didn’t see things in my playing that were like his. Frankly, he doesn’t like very many American guitarists. He thinks they’re very shallow performers.”

 

 

Segundo Pastor

 

 

The acolyte largely agrees, suggesting that part of the problem is most American musicians don’t face as many obstacles or endure as many sacrifices for their art as foreign musicians.

“My students are spoiled. How are they going to suffer for their art?” he asked rhetorically.

He said that when he turned to the classical guitar in the early ’70s, after seeing combat duty in Vietnam and having his father pass away, he knew what hard times were. “I suffered because by then my father was gone and my mother couldn’t support me. Somehow I played guitar and kept myself fed, but I didn’t have a penny, really, until I was 32. But I loved the guitar and I didn’t worry about those things. People are kind of unwilling to do that anymore.”

He dismissed the new guitarists who denigrate the traditional repertoire in favor of avant garde literature as mere technicians.

“I hate to say this but about all the concerts I’ve been to with the new guitarists have been very boring, driving audiences away from the guitar. It’s a real shame. They’re championing these avant garde works, which is fine, but they can’t play the Spanish and romantic repertoire at all. They just can’t phrase it. It’s not in them. They sound like they’re playing a typewriter.

“There’s a lot of great guitarists now, and they’re excellent technically, but there’s still only a handful of great musicians.”

He hopes artists like Parkening and Pastor help audiences “discern the guitarists from the musicians.”

It may surprise those who’ve seen Heavin perform with aplomb at Joslyn Art Museum’s Bagels and Bach series or some other concert venue that he as at ease on a horse as he is on a stage, as facile at roping a steer as he is at phrasing a chord, or as penetrating a critic of a rodeo hand’s technique as of a classical guitarist’s. But a look at his thick, powerful hands, deep chest and broad shoulders confirms this is a rugged man. And he does work out to stay in trim, including working with horses.

“As a matter of fact this is the first year I haven’t rodeoed in many years,” he said. “The only reason I’m not this summer is that I’m in the middle of doing an album and my producer’s worried about my losing a finger. I team rope now because I’m too old to ride rough stock. If I do get out of roping to protect my hands I’m probably going to have to do cutting or something just to stay on a horse. It’s just that horses are in my blood. But it’s tough with this kind of career because it takes so much time.”

Heavin has competed on the professional rodeo circuit all over Nebraska. “It’s funny,” he said. “I draw good crowds at my concerts in western Nebraska because I know all the ranchers and rodeo people, and they’re curious to see this classical guitarist who rodeos, too. I was playing a concert in Kearney and there were some roping friends in the audience. After I was done I went up and said to them, ‘These other people think I’m a guitarist, so don’t be telling them I’m a cowboy.’ But it was too late. They already had. I try not to advertise it too much.”

Heavin took to the rodeo as a boy to escape the music world he’d run dry on. “I started riding bulls and bareback broncs. I wanted to be a world champ bronc rider,” he said.. He rodeoed through high school and for a time in college. He also participated in football, wrestling and track as a prep athlete, winning honors and an athletic scholarship to Kansas University along the way.

“I think my dad put pressure on me to be an athlete to some degree because he wanted me to be well-rounded.”

At KU Heavin played on the same freshman football team as future NFL great John Riggins, a free-spirit known for his rebel ways. “I’ve never seen a guy that trouble came to so quickly. We used to go to bars and there was always a fight and John usually started it. He had more John Wayne in him than John Wayne.”

Another classmate and friend who became famous was Don Johnson, the actor. Heavin hasn’t seen the Miami Vice star in years but stays in touch with his folks in Kansas.

It was the late ’60s and Heavin, like so many young people then, was torn in different directions. “I decided I really didn’t want to be in school but I had the draft hanging over my head. I took a chance anyway and dropped out…and I was drafted within two months.”

The U.S. Army made him an artillary fire officer and shipped him off to Vietnam before he knew what hit him. He shuttled from one LZ to another, wherever it was hot. “I was what they called a bastard. I was with the 1st Field Force. I was in the jungle the whole time. I saw base camp twice during a year in-country,” he said.

Heavin was shot in action and after recovering from his wounds sent back out to the war. Luckily, his tour of duty ended without further injury and he finished his Army hitch back home at Fort Riley, Kansas. While stationed there he began missing working with horses and on a whim one day entered the bareback at a nearby rodeo.

“I drew a pretty rank horse, plus I hadn’t ridden in years and I was still sore from my war injuries. I got hurt. When I got back to the base they were mad at me because I couldn’t pull my duty. They were going to court-martial me.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the incident was forgotten. “When I got out of the service my dad died shortly thereafter, and there was no music anymore.” Heavin had been working a job unloading trucks for two years when a friend suggested they see a classical guitarist perform. The experience rekindled his love for music.

“I was enthralled. And it just came over me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “That’s how fast I made my deicison to play classical guitar.”

 

Until then Heavin said he had never really heard classical guitar, much less played it. He began by teaching himself.

“I worked really hard. As soon as my hands could take it I was practicing six to eight hours a day and working a full-time job — just so I could get into college.”

Heavin brashly convinced the chairman of the Southwest Missouri State University music department to start a degreed classical guitar program for him. “I said, ‘Look, I want to get a degree in guitar and I’m determined to do it. And I don’t know why nobody has a program in this part of the country.’ He said, ‘I agree, let’s try this and see what happens.'” As the pioneering first student hell-bent on finishing the program, Heavin graduated and he said the program has “grown into something really nice and become very popular.”

His chance meeting with his mentor-to-be, Segundo Pastor, occurred at a concert in Springfield, Mo., at which Heavin was playing and the maestro was attending on one of his rare American visits. Heavin was introduced to “this little old man who couldn’t speak English” and arranged to see him later. He played for Pastor in private and the master liked the young man’s musicianship. The two began a correspondence.

When Pastor returned the next year he asked to see Heavin. “I spent practically a whole day with him and I played everything I knew. Then he said, ‘If you come to Spain I’ll teach you for nothing.’ I didn’t realize then what this meant or how it was going to work out,” Heavin said. A university official aided Heavin’s overseas studies. But the student still had no inkling his apprenticeship would turn out to be what he termed “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

“When I arrive there was an apartment for me. The maestro’s wife was like my mom. His son was like my brother. And I realized only after I got there that I was his only student. He rarely takes them. There were Spanish boys waiting in line to study with him.”

Appropriately, the rodeoer lived a block from the Plaza de Toros, the bullfighting arena, and next door to the hospital for bullfighters.

“I lived in the culture. I wasn’t with Americans at all. My friends were all Spanish. I taught them English, they taught me Spanish. During the 10 months I was there I had a two-hour lesson from Segundo almost every day. He puts all of himself into that one student. That’s why he doesn’t take on many. It was really like a fairy-tale because the man literally gave me a career. The thing that’s odd about it is that I had only been playing about a year when the maestro invited me to Spain. It was confusing because there were Spanish boys who could play better than I.”

It was a question that nagged at Heavin for a long time. why me?

“The whole time I was in Spain I kept asking him, ‘Why did you pick me?’ and he would never answer it. The last night I was there he knocked on my door and we went to the university in Madrid. It was one of those romantic Spanish evenings. We were walking down a wet, cobblestone street and he put his arm on me and said, ‘Yeah, the Spanish boys are good guitarists but some day you’ll be a great guitarist,” recalled Heavin, still touched by the memory. “That gave me a lot of confidence to go on.”

During his stay abroad Heavin toured with Pastor throughout Spain, When the apprenticeship ended they performed duo concerts across the U.S., including New York’s Carnegie Hall. Heavin’s career was launched.

While the two haven’t performed publicly since then, Heavin said they remain close. “Now that I’m in the States he comes more often. When he visits we just have fun and enjoy ourselves. Two years ago he came with Pedro, a friend from Spain, and they did a duo concert here.”

Asked if in some way Pastor replaced his father, with whom he was so close, and Heavin said, “Oh yes. He’s like my father, no doubt. He’s my mentor, too.”

After earning a master’s degree at the University of Denver Heavin came to UNO in 1982. He heads the school’s classical guitar program, which he said is a good one. “I’ve got some students who play very well.”

Besides teaching Heavin performs 25-30 concerts a year, a schedule he’s cut back in 1990 to work on his first album.

“I’ve just finished doing the research on the pieces I want to put on. Now I’m learning the pieces. I’ll probably go into the recording studio in October or November,” he said.

As with Pastor singling him out for the chance of a lifetime, a patron has discovered Heavin and is helping sponsor him. “Another fairy-tale happened. A stockbroker heard me play and thinks I should have lots more recognition. He wants to get involved in my career.”

The guitarist is looking forward to touring more once the album is done. He has been invited to perform in Australia and Pastor has asked him to do concerts in Spain.

“People ask me why I live in Omaha and not on the coast,” he said. “I dearly love Omaha. I love the Old Market. I don’t like huge cities.”

Heavin, who practices his art about five hours daily, said success has little to do with locale anyway. “It’s an attitude. To do anything well requires an aggressive attitude. You have to just want to, and I’ve always done well financially playing guitar and teaching.”

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, old wars, new wars, endings and new beginnings

January 27, 2011 6 comments

For many Nebraskans, myself included, Bob Kerrey has always been a fascinating figure.  Unusual for a politician from this state, he exuded a charisma, some of it no doubt innate and genuine, and some of it I suspect the reflected after glow of our idealized projections.  As a combat war veteran who overcame the loss of a leg in service to his country, he was a valiant survivor .  As a brash political upstart and liberal Democrat in solidly conservative and old-boy-network Republican Nebraska his was a new voice.  His good-looks and suave ways gave him a certain It appeal. When he landed in the governor’s office and struck up a romance with actress Debra Winger, who was in state to shoot scenes for the film Terms of Endearment, it only confirmed Kerrey as a rising star and player in his own right.  His long career in the U.S. Senate is probably most memorable for the number of times he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Democratic presidential nominee race.  He did end up running but it soon became clear his magic did not resonate with the masses.  More recently, he dealt with the unpleasant truth of hard things his unit did during the Vietnam War.  He left the political arena for a university presidency only to find himself at odds with faculty and student groups who eventually called for his ouster.  As he prepares to leave the world of academics for some as yet unnamed new venture, he seems like a lot of us who come to a point in life where it’s time for reinvention and renewal. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is obstensibly a sampler of his views on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as it relates to active duty military and war veterans, but it also serves as a look into how he approaches and articulates issues. I also have him weigh in on the Tucson shooting.  At the end of the piece I address some of the currents in his professional life that find him, if not adrift exactly, then searching for a new normal.

 

Bob Kerrey

 

 

 

Bob Kerrey weighs in on PTSD, old wars, new wars, Eedings and new beginnings

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Vietnam war veteran and former Nebraska governor and U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey will be in Omaha Jan. 31 to salute At Ease, an Omaha program providing confidential behavioral health services to active duty military personnel and family members.

Founded by Omaha advertising executive Scott Anderson, At Ease is administered by Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Kerrey, whose embattled New School (New York) presidency ended January 1, is the featured speaker for the At Ease benefit luncheon at Qwest Center Omaha.

Reports estimate up to one in five Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans — some 300,000 individuals — suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or major depression. Controversy over strict U.S. Veterans Administration guidelines for PTSD claims has led to new rules that lessen diagnostic requirements and streamline benefits processing.

Last summer Kerrey, a board member with the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America (IAVA), publicly criticized a VA policy banning its physicians from recommending medical marijuana to patients.

“There are doctors who are strongly of the view that marijuana prescribed and monitored can be beneficial for a number of physical and mental conditions,” he says. “And in those states where medical marijuana is legal I think the VA should allow it.

“If a doctor can prescribe medical marijuana for somebody who’s not a veteran, it doesn’t seem to me to be right for that doctor not to be able to prescribe it for a veteran.”

Kerrey, speaking by phone, says he keeps fairly close tabs on veterans’ affairs.

“I would say I stay more current on veterans health and veterans issues than I do on other issues. I’ve made a few calls on the Veterans Bill of Rights that (Sen.) Jim Webb pushed. I get called from time to time to help people that are having problems. It’s much harder to help somebody when you’re not holding the power of a senate office or a governor’s office.”

Kerrey strongly advocates the work of IAVA, founded in 2004 by Paul Rieckhoff, a former Army First Lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq.

“It’s a very good organization for any Iraq or Afghan veteran that’s looking for somebody they can talk to,” says Kerrey. “They’re very careful not to duplicate what the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and the DAV (Disabled American Veterans) and the (American) Legion are doing.

“They don’t have buildings, they just have basically networks of Iraq and Afghan veterans who are trying to help each other.”

He suggests the number of veterans needing help for PTSD is so vast that only a combined public-private initiatives can adequately address the problem.

“You start off with an estimate of 300,000 PTSD sufferers from Iraq and Afghanistan and multiply by it two or three, depending on how many family members are going to be affected, and you’re talking about maybe a million people,” he says.

“This is a difficult thing for the Veterans Administration or other government entities to handle all by themselves. Non-governmental efforts are typically supplemental — all by themselves they’re not going to get the job done (either).”

He views At Ease as a non-governmental response that can help address problems at the local level.

“It’s hard to figure out what to do for a million, but if you’re talking about 50 or 60 or a hundred or just one, there’s something you can do, and that’s what At Ease is doing through Lutheran Family Services. It’s a great example of how when you say, I’d like to do something to help, there are venues, there are ways to help. It’s a terrific story.”

His remarks at the fund raiser will make that very point.

“My focus will be on how possible it is for a single individual, in this case Scott Anderson, a nonmilitary citizen with no direct contact with PTSD, to do something. And his program’ saved lives, it’s made lives better.”

In this belt-tightening era, Kerrey says nonprofit-volunteer efforts can make an especially vital impact.

“We hear so much about things unique to America that there’s a tendency at times to be skeptical. But our nation’s volunteer, not-for-profit efforts are unique in the world. The financial and volunteer time giving that occurs is a real source of strength that doesn’t show up on economic analyses,” he says, adding that veterans’ problems are “not going to be made easier if in a moment of budget cuts we cut back on mental health services.”

Attitudes about mental health disorders are much different now than when he returned from combat in Vietnam, where he led a Navy SEAL team. Kerrey was awarded the Medal of Honor. Thankfully, he says, the stigma of PTSD is not what it used to be.

“First of all, I think mental illness is seen much differently today — much more mainstream, much more comparable to physical illness. I think you’d probably have a hard time finding somebody in Nebraska that doesn’t have somebody who’s experienced a trauma producing some kind of disability.

“I would say the mental trauma is in a demonstrable way more disabling than the physical trauma. And the two can be connected. I think generally today people accept that. I’m sure there’s still a lot of people who think of PTSD as connected to Vietnam but I think that’s the exception rather than the rule. The rule is it’s seen more broadly as a condition that can affect anybody, both in and out of combat.”

Repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghan, he says, have added new stressors for “guys rotating in and out multiple times. It’s one thing to go over your first time and wonder whether or not an IED is going to take you out, but to have to go over a second, a third, a fourth (time) — at some point it has to harden you when you get home. It has to have a terrible impact on you.”

He believes whatever care veterans receive must be personal and consistent.

“The most important thing is sustained support because what you need is somebody you can call when you’re having trouble,” he says.

Although he never suffered PTSD, he dealt with losing a limb and adjusting to a prosthesis. He endured physical pain and memory-induced night sweats. He says while recovering from his injuries “some of the most important things given to me were by volunteers who would just come in and say, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ It’s extremely important for another human being to be there and demonstrate they care enough about you to spend time with you.”

On other topics, Kerrey says the recent Tucson shooting may hold cautionary lessons. Alleged gunman Jared Lee Loughner made threats against his target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a Democrat sharply criticized by the Right. Kerrey says while rhetoric is part of this society’s free exchange of ideas, labeling an elected official a danger may trigger an unstable person to act violently.

Meanwhile, Kerrey, who was to have remained New School president through July, has given way to David Van Zandt. Kerrey remains affiliated with the school. His fate as president was sealed when senior faculty returned a 2009 no-confidence vote. Until last summer Kerrey had been in negotiations with the Motion Picture Association of America to become the trade group’s president.

About his New School experience, he says, “I’m grateful for the chance to have done it. I learned a lot. I got a lot done. I made a lot of friends.” He also ran afoul of vocal student-faculty blocs. His well-known political skills failed him in the end.

“I certainly didn’t expect my term as university president was going to be free of situations where something was going to be upsetting. I was not an altogether cooperative student when I went to the University of Nebraska. I’ve seen university presidents hounded, harassed, criticized before I became one, so it didn’t really surprise me.”

With the MPAA no longer courting him, Kerrey says he’s looking to do “something in public service — something I think is not going to get done unless I do it,” adding, “It’s much more likely I’m going to be spending more time back there (Nebraska).”

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

September 2, 2010 1 comment

 

Courtroom One Gavel

 

 

Every city of any size has its flamboyant attorney who lives and practices law out loud, making bombastic statements, courting the media so as to influence public opinion, and generally raising his voice to be heard above the din.  Omaha‘s attention-getting criminal defense and personal injury star lawyer is James Martin Davis, who is very good at what he does, which is grabbing headlines, winning cases or making deals, and indulging his appetite for the finer things. He has a rich back story that includes combat action in Vietnam, a stint in the Secret Service, the tragic death of his only son, and his own close brushes with death.  Those extreme, vulnerable moments contrast with his public person and it is that dichotomy that attracted me to telling his story.  I did this profile a few years ago for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and I am happy to report that Davis is still busily playing the self-styled gladiator role he casts himself in and still living life to the fullest.

 

James Martin Davis – A Self-Styled Gladiator in the Halls of Justice

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Omaha defense attorney James Martin Davis calls himself “a gladiator” doing pitched battle in the arena of the courtroom, you’re inclined to chalk it up as just so much bombast. His penchant for taking on high profile cases and playing the media with his voluble, quotable, hyperbolic comments, has led him to be dubbed “the prince of the one-liners and the king of the sound bite.” He even enjoys repeating the dig, his jowly, bulldog mug breaking easily into a smile or scowl from behind the big oak desk in his uber office across from the Douglas County courthouse, where he engages in legal warfare almost daily.

He loves to speak about himself. And why not? He knows he’s good copy and knows he can spins stories for maximum effect from his rich life. Whether it’s tales from the courtroom, the battlefield, the White House, the deep blue sea or the mean streets of organized crime, he’s seen a few things in his time.

Not even death can shut Davis up. On June 17 his wife Polo rushed him to Methodist Hospital after he awoke with chest pains. In the ER his heart stopped — twice. Not until the eighth jolt from a cardiac paddle did his ticker restart for good. Classic heart attack. As he likes to recount now, “When I came to I asked a nurse, ‘What happened?, and she said, ‘You died and we brought you back to life.'” Hours after an angioplasty cleared a severe arterial blockage he was already angling with docs to leave the sick house and plea-bargaining to preserve some portion of his now banned nightly cognac-cigar ritual.

Despite the close call he was in the office less than a week later and exactly one week after the incident he was on the road for a case.

He went through something like this back in 1995, when he ended up having a quintuple bypass. His bum heart doesn’t worry him, just as the prospect of death doesn’t scare him. When it’s his time to go, he’ll go. He just wasn’t ready yet. He said as he regained consciousness in the ER and saw all the white coats rushing around, he realized “this was serious.” Even though death was near, he said, “I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t in pain. I was just totally serene. I basically decided I want to live.” Whether he cheated death or not, he  knows his number will be up again. He’s just not making any dietary concessions. His vices are too ingrained.

“It’s not going to get me down. Life is to be enjoyed,” he said.

The 61-year-old Omaha native doesn’t mind being called a headline-grabber. His hunger for publicity got a good going over during his Omaha Press Club’s Face on the Barroom Floor induction/roast in 2004. He can afford a sense of humor about himself given his success. Attired in one of his sharp suits, he comfortably wears the image of his own high living figure. With his round ruddy face and gourmand pot belly, he’s the picture of self-satisfaction as he lights up an Arturo Fuente cigar, leans back in his plush chair to draw on it and tells war stories drawn from his experiences in the courtroom and the jungle. The trial lawyer is also a Vietnam combat vet. A great raconteur, he punctuates his mix of flowery and profane speech with emotional inflections and dramatic pauses.

He is one well-cured ham.

James Martin Davis
His richly adorned wood and glass offices in the Farnam Plaza building downtown bespeak the high “overhead” of his practice, including a staff of clerks and a team of investigators. He said he must gross $360,000 a year “just to keep the lights on — before I take a penny.” He boasts, “My overhead is well over what most lawyers gross.” Everything about the place announces him as a well-heeled Old School barrister, from the chandeliered conference room/library to the prints hanging on the walls to the life-sized statue of Miss Liberty holding the scales of justice in one hand, a sword in the other and her feet stomping evil serpents.

“This is not a facade,” he said. “That’s what it is, that’s what I am, that’s what I believe. This is a real, old time lawyer’s office.”

He sees himself in the mold of the Clarence Darrows and F.Lee Baileys of his profession.

The prints depict vintage dockside scenes of his beloved Bahamas, where he vacations fours weeks a year. Scuba diving caves, blue holes, James Bond dive sites, shark waters and Spanish Main treasure wrecks is one of his many indulgences. Hunting quail, pheasants and wild turkeys is another. Besides the Caribbean, he enjoys traveling to Europe, Florida and an annual Las Vegas pilgrimage.

Always one for the action, he said, “there’s never been a period of total calmness in my life. I’m not an adrenalin junkie, but by the same token I like doing things that are interesting and exciting. God gives you a cup when you’re born and it’s up to you to fill it…”

“He does like to be in the middle of the action,” said U.S. (D-Neb.) Sen. Ben Nelson, a frequent hunting companion of Davis’. “He does have a high energy level.” Nelson’s known Davis for 40 years. They were in the same law school class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “He is still the same Jim Davis I met the first day in law school back in 1967,” Nelson said. “Still a go-getter, a character, with a great sense of humor. Very outgoing. Can be the life of the party. But a very, very sincere, good friend as well.”

As for his large appetites, Davis said, “I suppose a lot of it is maybe never growing up. You know, playing war or playing cops and robbers, only doing it for real.”

Davis ends his days with a nightly repast of cognac and Graycliff cigars, which he smokes at $25 a pop. “My monthly cigar and cognac bills are more than most people’s house payments,” he said with a mite too much of a smile.

All around him are artifacts from his “full life.” There’s a faded Polaroid of his Army combat brothers in Vietnam. At the end of the ‘60s he did a year in-country, leading a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP)-trained team that infiltrated enemy lines to insert sensors on trails frequented by the Viet Cong. Then, from a safe post, his team monitored the devices. Once the sensors were “tripped” and VC movements confirmed, his team called in artillery fire on the positions. It was part of a classified Army intelligence project whose “black bag” jobs gave him top secret clearance and the autonomy to work outside the normal chain of command.

There are signed pics of him guarding heads of state as a Secret Service agent in the early ‘70s, when he was assigned the Nixon White House and had run-ins with chief of staff H.R. Haldeman, whom he recalls as a “flaming ass hole.” At various times Davis protected the President, the First Lady, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a plethora of ambassadors. He was in Washington when Watergate broke. Other images show him with some of his mover-and-shaker friends.

Prominently on view is a portrait of his and his wife Polo’s late son Jimmy, who was killed in an auto accident at 16. Recounting the loss brings Davis to tears in the course of a long conversation.

A framed front page of a newspaper is emblazoned with the results of an organized crime strike force Davis led in Indianapolis. Finds from the scuba diving trips he makes, including cannon balls, a pistol and coins, lay inside a glass case and atop a credenza. A pedestal displays a copy of a book he authored on conducting raids.

A reminder of what makes possible his living so well is a plaque that reads, “Show Me the Money.” This tough opponent and loyal advocate is a pricey defender of right. “I charge a lot. I’m expensive,” he acknowledges. Although he represents folks of lesser means and does some pro bono work, he has just as many well-to-do clients — doctors, lawyers — that he bills full-rate. If someone has trouble affording his fees, he said he tells them, “I suggest you go to your family or friends or Mastercard or Visa or your bank to borrow that.”

He also moves in circles of power that seem at odds with his persona as a “champion” for the underdog, although he sees no contradiction in railing against the system in one breath and buddying up to establishment figures in the next.

A failed Democratic candidate for Congress in 1996, Davis is on the party’s short list of prized race horses each election cycle, but publicly says he’s sworn off making another political bid. Still, with good friends like Nelson bending his ear, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Davis did run again given his high visibility and gift for gab.

Davis is known for the unabashed way he speaks his mind, whether addressing juries, judges, prosecutors, witnesses, clients or reporters. He doesn’t mince or parse his words. Instead, he tells you exactly where he stands and usually has the facts to back it up. That quality is what made former Girls and Boys Town executive director Rev. Val Peter retain him to defend GBT from sexual abuse allegations.

Peter said he found Davis to be “very bright, very thorough. He knows what he’s looking for, finds it, will report it accurately…unvarnished. And I like all of that. I like frankness. I like real honesty. He’s just got a way for getting at the facts.”

Davis’ live-out-loud style can rub some the wrong way. No one, however, questions his Legal Eagle status. He’s known for doing his homework. The few times his cases do go to a jury trial, he puts up a fierce defense and his cross examinations are legendary, as his withering assaults can break witnesses in the box.

“It’s entertaining to watch but it would not be pleasant to be on the receiving end of that,” said Patricia Bramhall, a former prosecutor turned-defense-attorney who was co-counsel with him in the GBT cases. Bramhall said he’s also quite effective in front of juries. “He’s got a natural ability to just say what he wants to say and you-can-take-it-or-leave-it. He’s articulate.”

Last year, Davis said, he went 6-0 in trials.

“The knock is that he is flamboyant and outrageous, but when he gets in the courtroom he’s very well prepared and very professional,” said Douglas County prosecutor Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, who’s opposed him in numerous cases over two decades. “He does a good job for his clients.”

Bramhall, who squared off with him in the past, said, “You have to bring your A-game” against him. “He keeps you on your toes. It’s a challenge.”

Still, Retelsdorf said, “as an opponent he can sometimes drive you crazy because he’s pretty flamboyant.” Some might even call what Davis does grandstanding. “Some might,” Retelsdorf said, “but, you know, I don’t think he stands alone in that. That’s become more the trend the last 10 years for defense attorneys. You see them more on television…using the media. Of course from my perspective I don’t like it. As a prosecutor I’d rather try the case in the courtroom.”

When you listen to Davis’ first-hand accounts of war or front-line law enforcement work or hear his tirades against miscarriages of justice you realize he really believes he’s a do-gooder. The irony, Retelsdorf said, is that its prosecutors like herself, working on behalf of victims, who typically think of themselves as champions of the people, not attorneys representing criminal defendants.

Clearly, though, his credo of being a gladiator for the people is not an abstraction or pose. First as a soldier running special ops, then as a Secret Service and undercover agent, once passing himself off as Wise Guy “Jimmy D,” and then as a young Indianapolis prosecutor heading organized crime and police corruption task forces targeting “stone cold bad guys,” he put his life on the line for his God, his country, his commander-in-chief and the leaders of the free world.

For him, his work today as an Omaha defense attorney is an extension of that public service and a continuation of the good fight. It provides the action he craves, although the only real danger he faces now is being cited for contempt.

“When I joined the Army I took an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Well, there wasn’t any ending date on that oath. I took the same oath as a lawyer. While the money is collateral, I’d be doing this if I was making one-tenth of the money because what I do and what a jury does is important. We the People have to have a champion because the whole history of the world is that governments treat rights like privileges. They think they give them and they can take them away. Well, we don’t receive rights, we have them, they are ours, they are inalienable.

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that’s why you have to have lawyers. We’re the buffer between the government and the people. It’s no different then when I was out in the jungle placing those sensors. I’m a sentinel, a listening post out there on the perimeter guarding against improper government encroachment.

“So when I step in the courtroom or talk to the press, I’m not just defending my client, I’m protecting all of us. That’s my job. That’s how I see myself — as a gladiator protecting We the People. I like being that gladiator. I like going into the courtroom. That’s the Roman Arena. That’s where you walk in with your sword held high to protect the people from the lions. That’s what I do…liberty’s last champion…”

Vietnam gave this warrior survival skills for life.

“I was shot at in the air and on the ground. I was blown off an armored personnel carrier twice. I was motored, machine gunned, rocketed and gassed. I had a lot of close calls,” he said. “And I made it out, you know? I’ve never been afraid of anything since. As we combat veterans say, ‘I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.’”

“I never thought I was going to make it back…so I feel every day I have is a gift. I always wanted to do something with my life before Vietnam, but after something like that it just kind of energizes you and it makes you different than other people and it makes you know you’re different. Not better, just different.”

He isn’t so much defined by Nam as he uses its experiences as a gauge and guide. “Part of who I am and what I’m about is what I learned in Vietnam,” he said. “I learned some major lessons over there.”

Drafted upon completing his bachelor’s degree at UNL, Davis and his fellow law school classmates had no interest in joining the military.

“I had been a snob before…an elitist. I looked down on them” (the grunts) “from the Ivory Tower of college. I will never do that again because I discovered in Vietnam the measure of a man is not governed by how much education he has or his status in life. It’s governed by a simple equation, When it comes down to those fundamental situations involving life or death, will you be able to trust your life with this man? Does he have his shit together?

“If he had it wire tight, man, you wanted to be with him. If he didn’t…you didn’t care how educated he was, how rich he was, you didn’t want to be around him. And that is as much a rule I follow in my life now as I did then.”

He sizes up people. Clients, witnesses, juries, opponents, prospective staffers. If you can, as a sergeant in Nam put it, “keep your ass in the grass and do your job,” you’ve got his respect. The stress of combat laid it all out on the line.

“It tests people’s character,” he said. “You know, the Japanese have a saying — You only live twice: once when you’re born and once when you’ve looked in the face of death.”

Having been to the jungle and seen the elephant, he said, gives him advantages.

“A big part of it is instincts. I knew in Vietnam if and when I was going to get hurt. I knew when to go down a trail and when not to. And that’s something you’re born with. One of my strong points is cross examination. I know when to stop asking questions. I know you never ask the question you don’t know the answer to. I know when I’m going to be hurt and when I’m not.

“I know where I’m going to score pay dirt as I’m going. Whether it’s reading that person’s aura or body language or it’s being intellectually incisive, I don’t know. I don’t understand that gift. But I can plug into those things. I like to say it’s radar. You pick up blips and you’ve got to subliminally be able to interpret those blips.”

It’s the same knowing which cases to take to trial and which to cut a plea bargain deal for with prosecutors. “Again that’s instincts. I take the one I think I can win.”

“He’s smart about that,” Retelsdorf said. “He knows what battles to fight and what battles to concede.”

Davis’ feel for the terrain and taste for battle are two of his selling points with potential clients. “I found the way to keep clients happy is if they have confidence in you and they know you’re going to fight for ‘em.” he said. “That’s what they need and that’s what they want, and they sense that.”

“I don’t care what they’ve done,” he said, “my job is to see if I can have them found not guilty. If I can’t, then I have to do what’s in their best interests — either get some of the charges dropped or try to reduce their sentence or try to get them probation, file a motion to suppress evidence or maybe get the evidence thrown out at a preliminary hearing or get the case dismissed.

 

Louis Venditte’s defense attorney, James Martin Davis, answers questions for the media.

 

 

“There are times when people are falsely charged or over charged. There’s a lot of misjustice in this system. The people I represent are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty and I’ve got lots and lots of not guilty verdicts. The two sweetest words in the English language are ‘not guilty.’”

He feels Matt Robinson is an example of a criminal dependent being railroaded by an overzealous county attorney. The 17-year-old Gretna youth drove a car with  two friends in it the night of December 28 when the vehicle spun out of control and crashed near 180th and Platteview Road, leaving the two passengers dead.

Robinson is charged with two counts of felony motor vehicle homicide. Sarpy County attorney Lee Polikov says speed and alcohol contributed to the fatal crash. Davis asserts that while alcohol was in the vehicle, Robinson was not impaired at the time of the incident. Moreover, he says Robinson and his friends were fleeing a threat made by other youths. Davis has released a cell phone voice mail recording of an alleged threat made to Robinson in the hours before the crash. According to Davis, Robinson and his friends were being chased at the time the crash occurred.

Robinson has publicly apologized for his role in the tragedy but contends he should not face jail time. Davis says the circumstances in the case dictate the charges should not exceed misdemeanor motor vehicle homicide, adding Polikov “has made a crusade of this” as part of a crack down against reckless driving. “He’s out there arguing this political battle using my client as a tool for zero tolerance.”

Folks come to Davis when they feel wronged by The System and need a guardian for their rights. Allegations of misconduct often find him at odds with the Omaha Police Department. “I get two or three calls a week at least where people allege to have been beaten up by the cops,” he said. “I like the cops, they’re my very good friends, but there are people on there that overstep their power.”

In April of ’05 a political refugee from Togo named Koko Sessou was shot multiple times by Omaha police officer David Brumagen for allegedly driving his vehicle towards Brumagen, a second officer and others. Soon after Davis took the case he called a press conference to claim he’d produced physical evidence and witnesses that contradict the version of events tendered by police and other witnesses.

As the Sessou and Robinson cases illustrate, Davis is not averse to using the media to make points and air client grievances. Prosecutors may not like it, but as attorney Patricia Bramhall said, “he has a knack for it.”

 

WHNS – Darren Bates, right, answers questions from his attorney James Martin Davis during the trial for Darren Bates, the Council Bluffs City Councilman and former Omaha fire captain accused of soliciting a sex act, at the Pottawattamie County Courthouse in Council Bluffs Thursday.

 

 

Take the recent case of Monte Williams. On the night of November 26 the Omaha man was being arrested when Omaha Police officers noted he was hiding crack cocaine in his mouth. When he wouldn’t expel the drugs, he was allegedly shocked 10 times from a Taser gun operated by officer David Erickson. Soon after the event, Davis went on the offensive, suggesting to reporters the Williams case was part of a pattern. “The question is, is the Omaha Police Department Taser-happy?” he said. “People are getting Tasered all the time when they don’t need to be,” Davis told The Reader. “When I said OPD is Taser-happy, that’s on the heels of a whole lot of complaints of people being Tasered.”

He said since rouge cops “don’t seem to be prosecuted, the only way you can” expect the OPD to clean its own house “is to file claims or suits against the city.”

Erickson, the officer accused of abuse in the Williams case, has since resigned from the force, but OPD offered no explanation whether his leaving had anything to do with the accusations against him. While Davis is glad to have Erickson removed, he said the police’s handling of the incident and the officer’s sudden departure leave too many questions unanswered, something he says happens too often.

“Accountability and disclosure are two of the most important concepts there are to have a free government, but the way the police operate is just horrible in terms of investigating complaints,” he said. “Somebody files a complaint against a police officer and they never know what happens. They’ll get a note saying it was unsustained or unfounded or that it was sustained. So what? You don’t know whether the guy was punished, unless he was fired or suspended. Why? The police will say it’s illegal for us to discuss it. Bull fucking shit.

“The only reason they don’t discuss it is because this Goddamned police union is so strong that they negotiated a contract that says it’s going to be confidential. They’re not the CIA. They’re not Homeland Security.”

He terms “a mistake” the elimination last year of the city’s Independent Auditor post by Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey after auditor Tristan Bond issued a report critical of police conduct. “It’s a power play the police want” to avoid an independent, transparent review process, he said. The idea the police can honestly monitor themselves, he said, is specious: “They can’t self-regulate themselves.”

Courting the media to call out injustice, he said, “is part of the role I play. So many people are afraid of the media. I’m not. They’re not going to screw me if I don’t screw them.” It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship” — in the quid pro quo sense. “I do have that rapport with the media. I try to help them if it’s not going to hurt my client. I bird dog stories for the World-Herald and all the TV reporters. They know they can trust me. I’m not running for office and I don’t have any ulterior motives.”

However, Davis does represent now or has represented before some of Omaha’s leading media figures, ranging from KETV news anchor Julie Cornell to former KFAB announcer Kent Pavelka to Z-92 radio on-air personalities Todd ‘n’ Tyler. In these instances he acts as a kind of quasi agent, reviewing contracts and advising talent what they’re worth in hard market terms.

Then there’s the fact Davis is a sometime journalist himself. For years he’s written a Veteran’s Day op-ed piece for the Omaha World-Herald. He also had military and diving articles published in the Herald’s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands and in such publications as Soldier of Fortune.

His writing has extended to two books, Raids: A Guide to Planning, Coordinating and Executing Searches and Arrests and Top Secret: The Details of the Planned World War II Invasion of Japan and How the Japanese Would Have Met It. He said he’s half-way through penning a new book on treasure wrecks of the Spanish Main.

Given his cozy relationship with the media, it’s no wonder then he finds it a cop out when his colleagues clam up around reporters.

“Lawyers will say, ‘Well, I can’t talk about this because it’s in litigation.’ That’s bull shit. There’s all sorts of things a lawyer can talk about and should talk about with respect to his cases and there’s things he can’t talk about. Most people don’t have the knowledge or instincts to know where to draw the line and so they don’t say anything at all and that just aggravates the press because they know differently.”

He dismisses the notion he’s in love with fame.

“I know that’s been projected out there,” he said, “but I don’t take myself seriously. You can’t. I’m not that important.”

He said the vast majority of his media presence is due to “my clients, not me.”

By the same token he does put himself out there an awful lot and does seem to track stories filed on him, including a profile KM3’s Mary Williams did on him last fall that pleased him. The piece portrayed him as “Omaha’s Shark” in a sweeps tie-in with the NBC dramatic series Shark about a high profile attorney.

Todd Murphy of Universal Information Services, an Omaha media tracking agency, said Davis was mentioned 232 times in a 2006 sampling of area television/radio news casts. That’s a “high” figure by any measure, said Murphy, but pales in comparison to the “broadcast hits” Mayor Fahey and State Sen. Ernie Chambers netted — 1,165 and 583, respectively — in the same period. Davis’ print hits are also high.

Media exposure, including appearances on “Todd ‘n’ Tyler in the Morning,” can only help Davis drum up new business. “I’m recognized everywhere. What people say to me a lot is, ‘If I ever get in trouble, you’re going to be the man to see.’ It’s gratifying,” he said.

The recognition is hollow compared to what he would prefer in its place.

“When my son Jimmy died it was the worst thing that ever happened in my life,” he said. Jimmy, his only son, was killed when the car he was driving hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control and crashed. “I’ll never be the same again, ever,” Davis said. “I mean, you gotta go on, but there’s a hole in my heart that will never be filled. I would give up everything I have — everything I’ve told you about, doubled or tripled, just to have him back. I would trade all of it — the money, the fame, the success…”

Davis has moved on to fight another day. It’s what a warrior does.

“I’ve been to the jungle and seen the elephant.”

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

August 30, 2010 5 comments

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Another of the unforgettable characters I have met in the course of my writing life is the subject of this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  Jim Hendrickson is a Vietnam combat vet who went from looking through the scope of a rifle as a sniper in-country to looking through the lens of a camera as an art photographer after the war. His story would make a good book or movie, which I can honestly say about a number of people I have profiled through the years.  But there is a visceral, cinematic quality to Jim’s story that I think sets it apart and will be readily apparent to you as you read it.

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson on his vagabond life and enigmatic work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Combat sniper-turned-art photographer Jim Hendrickson is one of those odd Omaha Old Market denizens worth knowing. The Vietnam War veteran bears a prosthetic device in place of the right arm that was blown-off in a 1968 rocket attack. His prosthetic ends in pincer-like hooks he uses to handle his camera, which he trains on subjects far removed from violence, including Japanese Butoh dancers. Known by some as “the one-armed photographer,” he is far more than that. He is a fine artist, a wry raconteur and a serious student in the ways of the warrior. Typical of his irreverent wit, he bills himself as — One Hand Clapping Productions.

The Purple Heart recipient well-appreciates the irony of having gone from using a high-powered rifle for delivering death to using a high-speed camera for affirming life. Perhaps it is sweet justice that the sharp eye he once trained on enemy prey is today applied in service of beauty. For Hendrickson, a draftee who hated the war but served his country when called, Vietnam was a crucible he survived and a counterpoint for the life he’s lived since. Although he would prefer forgetting the war, the California native knows the journey he’s taken from Nam to Nebraska has shaped him into a monument of pain and whimsy.

 

 

Jim Hendrickson

 

 

His pale white face resembles a plaster bust with the unfinished lines, ridges and scars impressed upon it. The right side — shattered by rocket fragments and rebuilt during many operations — has the irregularity of a melted wax figure. His collapsed right eye socket narrows into a slit from which his blue orb searches for a clear field of vision. His massive head, crowned by a blond crew cut, is a heavy, sculptured rectangle that juts above his thick torso ala a Mount Rushmore relief. Despite his appearance, he has a way of melding into the background (at least until his big bass voice erupts) that makes him more spectator than spectacle. This knack for insinuating himself into a scene is something he learned in the Army, first as a guard protecting VIPs and later as a sniper hunting enemy targets. He’s refined this skill of sizing-up and dissecting a subject via intense study of Japanese samurai-sword traditions, part of a fascination he has with Asian culture.

Because his wartime experience forever altered his looks and the way he looks at things, it’s no surprise the images he makes are concerned with revealing primal human emotions. One image captures the anxiety of a newly homeless young pregnant woman smoking a cigarette to ward off the chill and despair on a cold gray day. Another portrays the sadness of an AIDS-stricken gay man resigned to taking the train home to die with his family. Yet another frames the attentive compassion of an old priest adept at making those seeking his counsel feel like they have an unconditional friend.

The close observation demanded by his work is a carryover from Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty. “With sniping, you had to look at the lay of the land. You had to start looking from the widest spectrum and then slowly narrow it down to that one spot and one moment of the kill,” he said. “You got to the point where you forced yourself to look at every detail and now, of course, I’m doing that today when I photograph. I watch the person…how they move, how they hold themselves, how they talk, waiting for that moment to shoot.”

Shooting, of a photographic kind, has fascinated him from childhood, when he snapped pics with an old camera his Merchant Marine father gave him. He continued taking photos during his wartime tours. Classified a Specialist Four wireman attached to B-Battery, 1st Battalion, I-Corp, Hendrickson’s official service record makes no mention of his actual duty. He said the omission is due to the fact his unit participated in black-op incursions from the DMZ to the Delta and into Cambodia and Laos. Some operations, he said, were conducted alongside CIA field agents and amounted to assassinations of suspected Vietcong sympathizers.

As a sniper, he undertook two basic missions. On one, he would try spotting the enemy — usually a VC sniper — from a far-off, concealed position, whereupon he would make “a long bow” shot. “I was attached to field artillery units whose artillery pieces looked like over-sized tanks. The pieces had a telescope inside and what I would do is sit inside this glorified tank and I would rotate the turret looking through the telescope, looking for that one thing that would say where the Vietcong sniper was, whether it was sighting the sniper himself or some kind of movement or just something that didn’t belong there. I’d pop the top hatch off, stand up on a box and then fire my weapon — a bolt-action 30-ought-6 with a 4-power scope — at the object. Sometimes, I’d fire into a bunch of leaves and there’d be nothing there and sometimes there was somebody there.” When the target couldn’t be spotted from afar, he infiltrated the bush, camouflaged and crawling, to “hunt him down.” Finding his adversary before being found out himself meant playing a deadly cat-and-mouse game.

 

 

  

©Images by Jim Hendrickson

  

 

 

“You look at where he’s firing from to get a fix on where he’s holed up and then you come around behind or from the side. You move through the bush as quietly as possible, knowing every step, and even the smell of the soap you wash with, can betray you. I remember at least three times when I thought I was going to die because the guy was too good. It’s kind of a like a chess match in some sense. At some point, somebody makes a mistake and they pay for it. I remember sitting in a concealed location for like three days straight because only a few yards away was my opponent, and he knew where I was. If I had gone out of that location, he would have shot me dead. So, for three days I skulked and sat and waited for a moonless night and then I slipped out, came around behind him — while he was still looking at where I was — and killed him.”

His first kill came on patrol when assigned as a replacement to an infantry unit. “I was the point man about 50 feet ahead of the unit. I heard firing behind me and, so, I turned to run back to where the others were when this figure suddenly popped up in front of me. I just reacted and fired my M-16 right from the hip. I got three shots into the figure as I ran by to rejoin the patrol. The fire fight only lasted two or three minutes, By then, the Vietcong had pulled back. The captain asked us to go out and look for papers on the dead bodies. That first kill turned out to be a young woman of around 16. It was kind of a shock to see that. It taught me something about the resolve the Vietcong had. I mean, they were willing to give up their children for this battle, where we had children trying to evade the draft.”

As unpopular as the war was at home, its controversial conduct in-country produced strife among U.S. ground forces.

“Officers were only in the field for six months,” Hendrickson said, “but enlisted men were stuck out there for a year. We knew more about what was happening in the field than they did. A lot of times you’d get a green guy just out of officers’ school and he’d make some dumb mistake that put you in harm’s way. We had an open rebellion within many units. There was officer’s country and then there was enlisted men’s country.”

In this climate, fragging — the killing of officers by grunts — was a well-known practice. “Oh, yes, fragging happened quite a lot,” he said. “You pulled a grenade pin, threw the grenade over to where the guy was and the fragments killed him.” Hendrickson admits to fragging two CIA agents, whom he claims he took-out in retribution for actions that resulted in the deaths of some buddies. The first time, he said, an agent’s incompetence gave away the position of two fellow snipers, who were picked-off by the enemy. He fragged the culprit with a grenade. The second time, he said, an agent called-in a B-52 strike on an enemy position even though a friendly was still in the area.

“I walked over to the agent’s hootch (bunker), I called him out and I shot three shots into his chest with a .45 automatic. He fell back into the hootch. And just to let everybody know I meant business I threw a grenade into the bunker and it incinerated him. Everybody in that unit just quietly stood and looked at me. I said, ‘If you ever mess with me, you’ll get this.’ Nobody ever made a report. It went down as a mysterious Vietcong action.”

He was early into his second tour when he found himself stationed with a 155-Howitzer artillery unit. “We were on the top of a gentle hill overlooking this valley. I was working the communications switchboard in a bunker. I was on duty at two or three in the morning when I started hearing these thumps outside. I put my head up and I saw explosions around our unit. Well, just then the switchboard starts lighting up.”

In what he said was “a metaphor” for how the war got bogged down in minutiae, officers engaged in absurd chain-of-command proprieties instead of repelling the attack. “Hell, these Albert Einsteins didn’t even know where their own rifles were,” he said, bellowing with laughter. What happened next was no laughing matter. In what was the last time he volunteered for anything, he snuck outside, crossed a clearing and extracted two wounded soldiers trapped inside a radio truck parked next to a burning fuel truck.

“First, I started up the fuel truck, put the self-throttle on, got it moving out of the unit and jumped out. Then I went back and helped the wounded out of their truck and got them back to where the medics were. Then, another guy and I were ‘volunteered’ to put a 60-caliber machine gun on the perimeter fence. We were on the perimeter’s edge…when I saw a great flash. A Russian-made 122-millimeter rocket exploded. The man behind me died instantly. The only thing I remember is the sense of flying.” Hendrickson’s right arm and much of the right side of his face was shredded off.

As he later learned, a battalion of Vietcong over-ran a company of Australians stationed on the other side of the hilltop and attacked his unit “in a human wave.” He said, “They ran right by me, thinking I was dead, probably because of all the blood on me.” The attack was knocked-back enough to allow for his rescue.

“I remember starting to come around as my sergeant yelled at me…I heard an extremely loud ringing noise in my ears. I knew something was extremely wrong with my right arm, but I didn’t know what. I couldn’t really see anything because my eyes were swollen shut from the fragments in my face. About that time the medic came along. They put me on a stretcher and pulled me back to a hold. That’s when I was told my right arm was blown off.

“I was just thankful to be alive at that point. Then, the rockets started coming in again and people were running around getting ready for the next human wave attack. I was lying there with the two guys I’d saved. Then I saw this big bright light in the pitch black. It was a chopper coming in to pick us up. The medics carried us up, threw us in and the pilot took off. As we lifted, I could hear bullets ripping through the chopper. We were taken to the nearest hospital, in Long Binh, about 50 miles away.”

While recuperating, Hendrickson was informed by his captain that of the 100-plus-man strong unit, there were only five survivors – the captain, Hendrickson, along with the two men he saved, plus one other man. “Apparently,” Hendrickson said, “the unit had been hit by a combination of rocket and human wave attacks that night and the day after and were eventually wiped off the earth. Years later, the historians said this was a ‘retreating action’ by the Vietcong. If this was a retreating action, I sure as heck would hate to see it when they were serious and advancing.” He said his fellow survivors are all dead now. “Those are four people whose names should be on that wall in Washington. Unfortunately, they’ll never be recognized as casualties of war, but yet they are casualties OF THE war.”

He spent the next several months in and out of hospitals, including facilities in Japan, before undergoing a series of operations at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio of San Francisco. Afterwards, he said, he entered “a wandering period…trying to find myself.” He made his home in Frisco, becoming a lost soul amid the psychedelic searchers of the Haight-Ashbury district. “I tried to resume a life of somewhat normalness, but it was like a whole separate reality.” He enrolled in City College-San Francisco, where he once again felt out of place.

Disillusioned and directionless, he then came under the guidance of a noted instructor and photographer — the late Morrie Camhi. “Morrie made that connection with me and started me on a pathway of using photography as a kind of therapy. It was a really great relationship that evolved…He became like a second father.” Years of self-discovery followed. Along the way, Hendrickson earned a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, married a woman with whom he got involved in the anti-war and black power movements and, following years of therapy in storefront VA counseling centers, overcame the alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from after the war. While his marriage did not last, he found success, first as a commercial artist, doing Victoria’s Secret spreads, and later as an art photographer with a special emphasis on dance.

 

 

Morrie Camhi

 

 

Helping him find himself as an artist and as a man has been an individual he calls “my teacher” — Sensie Gene Takahachi, a Japanese sword master and calligrapher in the samurai tradition. Hendrickson, who has studied in Japan, said his explorations have been an attempt to “find a correlation or justification for what happened to me in Vietnam. I studied the art of war…from the samurai on up to the World War II Zero-pilot. I studied not only the sword, but the man behind the sword. In the Japanese philosophy of the sword it’s how you make the cut that defines the man you are and the man you’re up against.” He said this, along with the minimalist nature of Haiku poetry and calligraphy, has influenced his own work.

“I try to do the same thing in my photography. I try to strip down a subject to the most essential, emotional image I can project.” He has applied this approach to his enigmatic “Haiku” portraits, in which he overlays and transfers multiple Polaroid images of a subject on to rice paper to create a mysterious and ethereal mosaic. While there is a precision to his craft, he has also opened his work up to “more accidents, chaos and play” in order to tap “the child within him.” For him, the act of shooting is a regenerative process. “When I shoot — I empty myself, but everything keeps coming back in,” he said.

A self-described “vagabond” who’s traveled across the U.S. and Europe, he first came to Omaha in 1992 for a residency at the Bemis Center for the Contemporary Arts. A second Bemis residency followed. Finding he “kept always coming back here,” he finally moved to Omaha. An Old Market devotee, he can often be found hanging with the smart set at La Buvette. Feeling the itch to venture again, he recently traveled to Cuba and is planning late summer sojourns to Havana and Paris. Although he’s contemplating leaving Omaha, he’s sure he’ll return here one day. It is all part of his never-ending journey.

“I see photography as a constant journey and one that has no end until the day I can’t pick-up a camera anymore,” he said.

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