By Holly Fisher
When the “Picturing Nam” exhibit comes to Greenville in June, Hank Povinelli, 70, will scan the photos for his own young face.
He was a U.S. Army staff sergeant in the 1st Aviation Brigade, stationed in Vietnam in 1969. He was just 21 when he returned home. Povinelli recalled how he and his fellow Vietnam veterans kept quiet about their time at war, silently burying that part of their military service.
“No one wanted to talk to you about it. It was the war that was out of favor with the public,” said Povinelli, who lives near Fort Mill. “For 20 years, we didn’t talk about that. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the Vietnam War came back into favor—not as a war, but as an opportunity to recognize veterans who didn’t get recognized the first time.”
“Picturing Nam” is a National Archives traveling exhibit, with more than 50 images taken by military photographers, that will be on display June 16 to Oct. 20 at the Upcountry History Museum–Furman University in Greenville.
“We did a Vietnam War exhibition several years ago and realized there are a lot of Vietnam veterans in our community,” said Elizabeth Gunter, director of education and programs at the museum. She added that the museum began collecting oral histories of veterans in the community and was eager to host this exhibit.
“The willingness of so many Vietnam veterans to now share their stories is truly amazing for the history of our community,” Gunter said. “It’s been really moving working with them.”
The museum is planning programs and lectures around the exhibit, including one with the University of South Carolina on Sept. 19 that highlights the university’s archive of film footage taken in Vietnam.
AARP is a sponsor of the “Picturing Nam” traveling exhibit, and AARP South Carolina is working with the museum on programming. Povinelli, vice president of the state AARP’s volunteer Executive Council, is helping organize a reception for AARP members and veterans the night before the exhibit opens.
Determination and dread
“Picturing Nam” shows the dense jungles, rugged mountains and swamps of Vietnam; objects and memorable artifacts like M-16 rifles, graffiti-covered helmets and peace symbol necklaces; and the faces of those who served. Visitors will see the soldiers’ determination, anxiety, exhaustion and dread.
“I think the pictures are going to be fascinating,” said Povinelli, who grew up in New York City and had never been outside the country before Vietnam.
“I had never really seen a dense jungle. I’d never felt that kind of humidity and the weather of Southeast Asia, which can be brutal. I’d never seen brown rivers. It will bring back those memories of what I thought the first time I saw a jungle.”
He added: “I will search every picture to see if they took a picture of me.”
Gunter said exhibits like this one give the country a chance to “right some wrongs” and recognize veterans who hid the fact that they even served in the war.
Fifty years later, veterans like Povinelli can talk openly about what they went through.
“I can lift my head, talk about being a Vietnam veteran and what that experience was like,” he said. “I can put a tag on my car or a Vietnam veteran cap on my head and people are going to thank me for my service instead of pretending I don’t exist.”
For more information on the exhibit, go to states.aarp.org/picturing-nam.
Holly Fisher is a writer living in Mt. Pleasant, S.C.