EDWARDS — Watching war and warriors from a USO stage is beautiful and bittersweet.
Pamela Smith has that perspective. When the Vail Valley resident was a Colorado State University student, she joined four other women from the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority to do hundreds of shows over several weeks, entertaining thousands of troops in Vietnam.
How they came to be in country
Kappa Kappa Gamma was fond of putting together jug bands — the Kappa Pickers — to entertain candidates during rush week parties: washboards, guitars and honest-to-moonshine-holding jugs.
This was 1968-72, and there was a war on.
A USO guy caught their act and said, “You should apply to do USO shows.”
“What?!?” they replied.
“You should apply to do USO shows,” the guy said again. “This is exactly what these guys want to see: girls their age,” the guy said.
So, the Kappa Pickers put together a demo tape, rehearsed a lot and booked a Shakey’s Pizza in Fort Collins for their audition. They packed it with friends who cheered and stomped and clapped at exactly the right times, as friends will.
The guy signed them that night, Smith said.
The Kappa Pickers’ parents were from the “Greatest Generation.”
“They did not once let us think that they weren’t all in, or that we had anything other than their total support,” Smith said.
In the summer of 1970, they boarded a plane for Southeast Asia to meet the war. The war met them.
“Our first show was a burn ward in Tokyo,” Smith said.
They wore gowns and footies to cover their shoes — nothing to cover their eyes, though and some things cannot be unseen.
That first tour was six weeks: Japan, Okinawa, Guam, the Philippines and South Korea. Dozens of shows for adoring audiences of GIs a long way from home with no one to talk to. In country (a term for being in Vietnam) during the late ’60s and early ’70s, a letter was a soldier’s only communication with the world.
“The shows lasted an hour, then we’d spend three hours talking to the soldiers,” Smith said. “They just wanted someone to talk to.
Besides incredibly polite marriage proposals, Smith said, the question the Kappa Pickers answered most often was, “How is everything in the world?”
They were so popular that the USO asked them to tour for five weeks during the holidays of 1970-71. They took their final exams early at CSU and boarded another plane for Southeast Asia and the war.
Christmas Day they did five shows, flying in helicopters from landing zone to landing zone. Crowds might be 50 appreciative GIs, Smith said.
Sometimes, though, the show does NOT go on. They canceled a couple because their landing zones were under enemy fire, and one because there was just too much mud.
Christmas night they flew back to their quarters in the Demilitarized Zone – that narrow strip of land separating South and North Vietnam — exhausted and pummeled by rain and mud. They found exquisitely hand-lettered invitations to dine with the generals. The menu would be filet mignon, lobster tail and Champagne.
When dinner was done, the generals asked, “Would you like to see a movie?” They watched “Kelly’s Heroes.”
“A far cry from singing for soldiers in the mud and rain,” Smith said.
‘Our job was to talk to these guys’
Their third tour was the 1971 summer. The war was different by then, and so were the soldiers. America was tired of being lied to by its own government. It showed in the faces of the men and women fighting.
“That was the toughest. Morale was terrible. The guys did not know why we were there, and no one was telling them. The government could not make the case for the war.”
During that third tour, the Kappa Pickers wore helmets and flak jackets in the officers’ quarters where they stayed. GIs did not know the Pickers were in there and had developed the tendency of throwing flaming bottles and other things at the officers’ quarters, apparently reasoning that a dead or dying officer could not order them to their own deaths.
“Imagine being there late in the war. They kept saying, ‘We hope we can get out of here alive.’ Our job was to talk to these guys,” Smith said.
Those USO tours were among the first times anyone differentiated between supporting the troops and the war they had been sent to fight.
“It was not about supporting the war. It was about supporting these guys our age,” Smith said. “We got over there and saw they were just like our brothers.”
Of the American military members sent to Vietnam, a third were drafted into service.
“You know there’s a problem when that many were there unwillingly,” Smith said.
Back in Fort Collins, letters from grateful GIs poured into their CSU sorority house. The Kappa Pickers read them to each other.
Lance Cpl. John Joyce, 3rd Marine Division, wrote: “I could sure use some other female pen pals … besides my mother.”
Once in a while, one of those soldiers showed up at their sorority house and asked for one of them.
Perspective and paradigms
Years later when the guns had gone silent, Smith and her husband, Rick, lived in Hong Kong, a one-hour flight from Hanoi. She made the trip several times, landing on airstrips surrounded by bomb craters left from the war.
She recalled a week the Kappa Pickers were on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. The captain invited them to the bridge to watch bombers take off to drop some of those bombs on those Hanoi airstrips she’d see years later.
In Hanoi she visited museums that told the North’s story of “The American War.”
Walking up a staircase in one of those Hanoi museums she spotted a picture of a North Vietnamese girl playing a guitar and entertaining her troops.
“My counterpart,” Smith said. “These were loved ones, too.”
The Kappa Pickers earned a perspective that few others had, and were horrified at the way the soldiers were treated when they returned from Vietnam, Smith said.
“That was the worst, the way they were treated when they came home,” Smith said. “That was a pivotal point for this country.”
Smith, still a CSU student, was riding a bus from Fort Collins to Vail to ski. She found a seat beside a young soldier fresh from the war. He just wanted to go home. People either ignored him or verbally assaulted him.
“He was devastated,” Smith said.
He told her, “You’re the first person who has talked to me.”
Smith and her family lived near Washington, D.C., when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened. Vietnam veterans rolled to the wall in wheelchairs, hobbled on crutches or walked to the wall. They found a buddy’s name to lay their fingers softly on. Some cried.
These days Smith works in women’s empowerment causes and is a huge believer in diplomacy.
“Our country has learned from some of the mistakes of Vietnam, in the way we treat those who serve in the military and also in the value of a highly . trained volunteer military,” Smith said.
Sometimes it’s necessary to fight to protect our country, or at least be ready to, Smith said. The Vietnam War was a tragic catastrophe on so many levels, but for Smith and the other young Kappa Pickers, it accomplished one thing.
“It helped at least five young women realize the importance of international diplomacy, and of honoring those who serve,” Smith said.