What I Learned Photographing the Vietnam War: Dick Durrance at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Following is the full transcript of photographer Dick Durrance’s TEDx Talk: What I Learned Photographing the Vietnam War at TEDxMileHigh conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the bio here.

Like 1,800,000 men, I got drafted. And when that draft notice came, I felt like I was going to be snatched away from my dream of being a photojournalist.

Now, we all know that soldiers are still being sent into combat, but because we no longer have a draft, most people have no idea what soldiers go through when they’re trained to fight, sent in to battle and return home.

And so what I’d like to share with you today are a series of photographs and stories from a photographic journal I kept from the moment I reported for duty until I returned from my tour in Vietnam. And what I hope you take away from today is a fuller sense of what soldiers go through and how it affects them.

On January 30th 1966, I reported for duty. I had no idea what to expect. Once inside, we waited and waited and waited. And then suddenly we were standing up, right hands raised, been sworn in. Before we could even think about what had just happened, we were whisked away to a train that would take us from our homes, our families and our friends to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for training. It was a long, lonely ride from everything we knew to we knew not what.

And when we stepped off that train in Fort Jackson, I was wondering, “Am I ready for this?” “Man, I’m about to be melted down, recast as a warrior, and handed to the president to do with as he wishes.” That afternoon we joined the longest line I’d ever seen in my life to get poked and prodded, shorn like sheep, stripped of our civilian clothes and our civilian identities.

The training started with the drill instructors whipping us into shape and teaching us to march. I’ve got to tell you something. Marching is not as easy as it looks. We couldn’t get 10 paces without getting out of step. But then the training got real. They issued us rifles. We were shooting at cardboard silhouettes of men, but I couldn’t help feeling that real men would seem just as unreal.

Think about it. If you saw someone as a mother’s son or a little boy’s father, could you pull the trigger? And then the training got even more real. We started hand to hand combat training, and I heard myself yelling, “Kill! Kill! Kill!” It ran against everything I’d ever been taught.

As we continued to pound through the hot summer days, I could see that the drill instructors were molding us into a tight-knit team that would have its back. Each guy would have the other guy’s back when the shit hit the fan. As we neared the end of the training, it was clear: we’d learned how to be soldiers, we’d learned how to work as teams, and we’d learned how to kill.

And after graduation, we marched off into war. Most of the guys got sent to Vietnam. I, incredibly enough, got assigned to the Department of Army Special Photographic Office, called DASPO. I was thrilled. I was going to be a photojournalist after all, shooting assignments for The Pentagon that would take me for all over Vietnam, from the DMZ in the North to the Mekong Delta in the South.

And before I knew it, I was prowling the streets of Saigon. And on a hot afternoon, 35 miles northwest of Saigon, I photographed my first firefight. And I couldn’t believe how loud it was. There was the roar of the tanks, the “boom” of their big guns, the “ra-ta-ta-ta” of the machine guns. It was deafening and disorienting.

And as I zigzagged through the debris, darting from tree to tree, taking cover where I could find it, I realized that I was so focused on photographing that I never even thought about the danger until the guy right there got hit. And after that, all I could think about was the danger.

Well, that afternoon four guys got wounded, but their buddies had their backs, and that made all the difference that day as it does every day in combat. I realized that I was just going to have to suck it up and somehow come to terms with the fear that comes with fighting. And that’s just what I did when I flew into the Mekong Delta to join the Riverine Force on patrol.

We spent a day moving up and down canals, constantly scanning the shore, looking for enemy soldiers who could be hiding in those trees just waiting to blow us out of the water. We felt like sitting ducks. It’s an awful, awful feeling. I did it for a day and I was rattled. Those guys did it for a year. What did that do to their minds?

And I was still thinking about the impact that fighting has on guys’ minds when I flew into the central highlands to a little base that had been carved out of the jungle. The air was hot and humid and filled with the buzzing of insects, as I made my way across the base to join a unit that was about to plunge into that jungle to try and stop enemy soldiers crossing from Cambodia into South Vietnam.

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