Bringing Memories of War to the Stage

August 9, 2011 — Features

Michael Arndt pictured near the site of the battle where he and 19 of his comrades fought on March 7, 1970. He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2010, almost 40 years to the day of the battle.

It’s been more than 40 years, but Michael Arndt is still haunted by memories of his deployment during the Vietnam War. So much so that the CLU theatre arts professor is taking steps to alleviate the painful remembrances, including a journey into the past and a stage play that probes the emotions of combat veterans of six wars.

The battle. The bloodshed. The screams of agony. Michael Arndt and 19 of his comrades from Echo Company, 1st Cavalry Air Mobile Division, were sent on a reconnaissance mission in the heat of the jungles of Vietnam. Almost immediately they came under enemy fire as the North Vietnamese troops opened up with 30-caliber machine guns. “I remember the rattle of the shrapnel hitting the trees,” Arndt recalled. “It was sheer terror.”

Arndt in 1970 at the same site with two Kit Carson Scouts.

When it was over, only about six of the men who went into battle that day were left untouched. Nearly 15 were either wounded or dead.

Among them was the company’s medic Theodore Ropchock, affectionately called Doc Candystripe. After he was hit with shrapnel, Ropchock refused morphine, asking that it instead be saved for others. He then explained how to administer the medication, all along knowing he was dying.

Through the night, Arndt and those who survived lay in the thick jungle alongside their fallen brothers in arms.

“I was between two guys whose backs were blown out,” Arndt said.

The next day, the soldiers were told it was too dangerous for helicopters to come in to retrieve the wounded and dead. So the few who were strong enough tied their ponchos around bamboo poles, creating makeshift gurneys, and carried their comrades out of the jungle. Arndt carried Ropchock. They left no one behind.

For 40 years, Arndt carried the burden of the memory of that day and the year he spent in Vietnam. But last year, with a new mission in mind, he decided to face the horrific memories he had longed to forget.

Michael Arndt in 2010, at the memorial museum at the former Khe Sanh Airbase

A reluctant soldier

Arndt enrolled in Augsburg College in Minnesota as a freshman in 1964. When he graduated in 1968, the United States was at war, and those who remained stateside dealt with the civil unrest of a nation battling itself.

“Martin Luther King was assassinated, Robert Kennedy was assassinated,” Arndt said. “I went into college a Goldwater Republican. By 1968, I was campaigning for Eugene McCarthy.”
He was also among those avoiding the draft.

“I decided to teach high school English in a low-income community,” he said. “It was common knowledge that people in that position were given a break.”

While many of his friends had found their way to Canada and even jail, Arndt received his draft notice on Sept. 16, 1968. He hadn’t received a break.

He appealed and was cleared until January, when he received his second notice. Again he appealed and was cleared, this time until June.

“The superintendent of my school district wouldn’t support another appeal,” he said.

On June 17, 1969, Arndt was inducted into the Army in Minneapolis. He was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., for basic training, and remained there for advanced infantry training until October. Five months after his induction, Arndt received orders to report for duty in Vietnam. After a 15-day furlough, he boarded a commercial aircraft that made its way to Tan Son Nhut Air Base just outside of Saigon.

Michael Arndt in 2010, having lunch in a Khe Sanh restaurant

To war and back

Arndt and the rest of Echo Company were assigned strictly to reconnaissance missions, often spending 25 out of 30 days in the jungle looking for the enemy. In a year’s time, they had completed 52 combat assaults, including the bloody battle on that March day.

“Despite everything bad about the war, I wanted to get to know the people there,” Arndt said. “I didn’t get much of a chance to do that other than the Hmong boys that had been recruited as Kit Carson Scouts. They, in part, served as guides through the jungles.”

In November 1970, Arndt received notice that he was being reassigned to Germany, where he served until he received an honorable discharge the following March.

The young veteran enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Minnesota. From there, he began directing and teaching theatre in Minnesota before joining the Theatre Arts Department at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. In 1982, he received an offer to teach drama at CLU.

“I didn’t want to come to Southern California,” Arndt said. “When I decided to come, I thought I’d only stay for a couple years.”

It’s now been nearly 30.

Michael Arndt in 2010, one of many battlegrounds in Vietnam that have been converted to tourist attractions.

Portraying Emotional Wounds of Combat

After all these years, Arndt has written a play reflecting on not only his memories but also those of veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Arndt, it’s a healing process.

“I remember as a child asking my dad why some of the World War II veterans had what we called shell shock,” he said. “I used to say to myself, ‘Wasn’t that a long time ago? Let it go.’ Now I understand that combat is something you never lose sight of.”

The stage play production started in the spring of 2010 when Arndt applied for a sabbatical as well as a project grant from the Ventura County Arts Council. For the first time since leaving in 1970, the former infantryman returned to the battlefields on which he fought in Vietnam. And though he had always been able to talk about his time in combat, he had not yet faced the traumatizing memories of what he saw.

When he returned home, Arndt began approaching local veterans groups for interviews, eventually partnering with Jerry Knotts of the Military Order of World Wars and Military Order of Purple Hearts.

In June, with more than 15 video interviews completed, Arndt was ready to bring Under Fire: Stories of Combat Veterans Across Generations to the stage. Combining video with actors portraying local veterans and original musical compositions by Christopher Hoag, the true stories of war came alive in front of a live audience at CLU in a format Arndt hopes to eventually share with universities throughout the country.

Arndt intends to stage his play for veterans groups and hospitals with hopes of starting a dialogue with the viewers.

“I would simply like to see others have the chance to share their stories. To experience that healing process,” he said.

Jannette Jauregui is a columnist for the Ventura County Star and has been writing profiles of military veterans for more than 10 years. Her book, Ventura County Veterans: World War II to Vietnam, was published this summer. She also serves as an adjunct lecturer in the Communication Department at CLU.