Oliver Stone's Platoon Buddies Recall the War 20 Years Later
Fighting next to Oliver Stone one day, Jimmie Danna said, "I'm the best actor in the world. It's impossible for you to get any scareder than me, but I will not let you see me scared. That's the reason I'm surviving." Indeed survival was everything, according to Danna, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam, the second with Stone. "Me and Oliver were in a situation where it was keeping each other alive," says Danna. "It was like, 'I'll take care of your back; you take care of mine.' We shared everything—women, food, drugs, animosity, fear, whatever."
Danna, now 44, says he was "kind of a homicidal maniac" when he returned to the States in 1972. "If someone would do something, it was my instinct to hurt him real serious, and that was an effect of the war." Danna worked in construction and had a job in a paper mill; today he is, in his words, "the best roofer in South Carolina." Married with two sons and a stepdaughter, Danna now lives in a trailer park in Summerville and doesn't have a telephone.
Danna's souvenirs of war include a Soldier's Medal and a Bronze Star, as well as a heroin addiction. Upon his return he checked himself into an Army hospital and broke the habit. Although he occasionally smokes a joint these days, he is quick to add, "I don't mess with no hard-core drugs, none whatsoever."
Ben Fitzgerald, 44, considers the 13 months he spent in Vietnam as "the worst experience of my life." He blames his divorce on the trouble he had adjusting to life back in the States. "I was drinking, gambling and having a hard time dealing with people," he says, "and my wife couldn't understand."
A die cast operator in Humboldt, Tenn., Fitzgerald describes Stone as "a friendly-type person. I introduced him to soul music and marijuana. We shared a lot of hours and a lot of fear." But as close as they were, Fitzgerald didn't hear from Stone from 1968 until last Christmas, when the director invited Ben to New York for a screening of Platoon.
Fitzgerald thinks Stone enlisted because he "just wanted to see what the war was all about. I don't think he really had to be there, but he made the best of the situation. He told me that what he really wanted to do was be in the movies. He wrote a poem about the places he had been, and it amazed me because it was a great poem. After the war I really expected him to come up in the movies."
The father of two boys, Fitzgerald liked Platoon but doesn't want his 69-year-old mother or 70-year-old father to see it. "I don't think they could take it," he says, "because they didn't have any idea of what I was going though. But I want my sons to see the movie so they'll know that something like this shouldn't happen again."
Michael Blodgett, 39, remembers walking point with Stone when the future filmmaker was attacked by spiders. "I saw the spiders fall down his shirt," says Blodgett. "I saw his shirt pulsating in and out, and he was pounding on it like Tarzan. From that time on, he had a phobia about spiders." That incident, of course, inspired one of the most memorable scenes in the movie.
Blodgett calls Stone a "gentle giant" who didn't really belong in Vietnam because he "didn't have the killer instinct." Blodgett remembers that Stone's well-to-do upbringing would often show in curious ways. "Oliver knew how to operate a P-38, which was an Army can opener," he says. "But one day I gave him a regular can opener to open C rations because it was faster. Oliver had it upside down. I laughed and said, 'Can't you open a can?' And he answered, 'I've never opened a can in my life. The maids do that.' "
After spending a little more than two years in Vietnam, Blodgett returned to the U.S. and moved from job to job. He finally decided to settle in a log cabin on a secluded part of his grandparents' farm in Logan, Ohio. He lives without running water, electricity or a telephone. His only companion is a Border collie name Pirate. Unemployed much of the year, Blodgett mows the lawn and paints picnic tables at a campground during the summer. When Platoon was released Blodgett tried to contact Stone. "But I never got in touch with him," says Michael. "He's a big shot now."
Toby Sanders, 40, is serving a 10-year sentence at the Connor Correctional Center in Hominy, Okla. for burglarizing a doctor's office to get drugs. Sanders became addicted in Vietnam and has spent years fighting the habit that cost him his marriage and earned him two jail terms. Although he only knew Toby slightly, Stone may be called on to testify at Sanders' parole hearing next fall.
After flunking out of the University of Tulsa in 1967, Sanders joined the National Guard, and when he missed some meetings, was drafted. His first battle was traumatic. "I saw a G.I. get shot in the head," he recalls, "and part of his head came off in his helmet." Nevertheless Sanders re-enlisted after his first tour of duty, partly he says, because "I had developed a dope habit, and it was easy to get stuff over there." He returned home, tried to go to school again, then took over his grandfather's printing ink company, which he ran into the ground to finance his drug habit. "I can't blame my drug problem on Nam," says Sanders. "I blame it on myself. It was a choice I made there, and it was a bad one."
In the movie, Charlie Sheen writes to his grandmother and describes the guys in his platoon, complete with their hometowns. One of those is Pulaski, Tenn., and it's the real-life home of Crutcher Patterson, 39, who spent 12 months in Vietnam and says that even though Stone was not "the everyday type of fellow," he and Oliver became "good buddies." In 1984 the filmmaker visited Patterson to discuss the battle that would later become the climactic scene in the movie. "He asked me how we were positioned," says Patterson. "He got wounded, and that ended us being together."
When Patterson came home he had "women problems, drug problems and problems with the law," including a short stretch in the county jail for drunken driving. That's behind him now. Twice divorced, he is the father of a daughter, 21, and a son, 17, and he owns an auto junkyard.
The movie, says Patterson, "is all right with me. We tried to take care of one another; we tried to survive. We didn't abuse the children. They were our trading partners. The kids sold us marijuana. They were trying to survive too." Unlike many of his comrades, Patterson actually missed Vietnam when he returned to the U.S. "I adapted too well to life over there," he says. "It was a whole different lifestyle, kind of like the Old West, Dodge City. You could do anything you were big enough to do."
Jack Pelletier, 38, feels Platoon is historically inaccurate. "The real war," he says, "was much, much worse." Still, he continues, "I thought the movie was great. My friends ask me, 'Was the jungle that thick?' 'No,' I tell them, 'it was thicker.' Most of the time you couldn't walk; you had to crawl to get through. The movie showed one leech on a guy's cheek. Well, hell, there were a million leeches. They were all over the place." Unlike many other veterans, Pelletier seems at peace with his Vietnam recollections, many of which are punctuated with a laugh.
Like Stone, Pelletier volunteered to join the Army. "When I look back at it now," he says, "I think I was dumb to volunteer, and I feel bitter because they didn't really tell us what was going on." After 11 months in Vietnam Pelletier finished out his hitch in Korea then moved back to his hometown of Lansing, Mich. He now drives a milk truck and leads a quiet life with his wife and two children.
Pelletier's memory of Stone is somewhat vague. "He was the guy who slept in the first bunk on the left," says Jack. "He was sort of a loner. He didn't go to none of the parties or drink in the PX. But you know," adds Pelletier softly, "you get to know guys real well, then two days later, they ship them home in a bag. That was hard, so I didn't get too close to nobody."
When Dick Ware returned to the U.S. after a year in Vietnam, he was greeted at the airport by anti-war protesters. "They were yelling 'Murderer' and 'Baby killer,' " he says. Ware responded by going to live in the woods in Minnesota for a year and a half. "I had those 500 protesters screaming in my ears," he explains, "and I just wanted to get away from everybody and not talk about Vietnam."
Ware, 37, lives in Superior, Wis. and builds bridges for the Burlington-Northern Railroad. He says he and Stone were "foxhole buddies. He was a good soldier. He did his job. You couldn't say that about everyone. He had proven himself. For a city boy, he was pretty good in the jungle."
For the most part, Ware thinks Stone's depiction of the day-to-day life of infantrymen in Vietnam is accurate, but he argues that the village-torching scene was too extreme. Ware admits that Americans did do things like cut the ears off enemy corpses, but he says that it was in retaliation to the brutal treatment American soldiers received in captivity. "We could hear them scream and holler," he says of the captured Americans, "and when we finally got them five days later, the enemy had carved them, sliced them across the back and chest, just to make them yelp, and they had carved tattoos out of them. After you saw that often enough, our men carving the bodies of the enemy didn't bother you anymore."
When Ware finally decided to come out of the woods, he registered to vote and got a job, although a close friend who had lost his eyesight and a leg during the invasion of Cambodia was a constant reminder of the war. "It took me six or seven years, and I still don't know if I've got it all together," he says. "I've got a nice wife and two lovely kids, but I still have dreams and think about Vietnam a lot. You don't go through something like that and not have it on your mind."
Jim Pappert, of Affton, Mo., has seen Platoon twice, and although he served for six months with Stone, he disagrees with some of what he saw in the film. "The movie didn't show enough of our people being maimed and killed," says Pappert, 38. A production line worker at a can company, Pappert also takes exception to the emphasis placed on drugs and alcohol in Platoon. "I drank beer, but I wasn't a boozer," he says. "The smokers were a minority in our outfit, but they were shown to be a majority in the film." Although Pappert says he recognizes about five characters who were drawn from his platoon, he doesn't think he is among them. "I was too straight," says the happily married father of three. "I was just one of those good guys."
Even good guys can get caught up in the heat of battle, and Pappert says he saw it happen. "We swept a lot of villages and searched them," he remembers, "and there were a lot of men who couldn't wait to get in there and beat somebody's head off. The expression on Charlie Sheen's face in the movie was like my expression the first time we went through a village and I saw the brutalilty of the Americans toward the villagers. But when you experienced the death of your own men, you didn't give a damn about them anymore; you had no feelings for the Vietnamese."
Of all the Vietnam films Monte Newcombe has seen, he thinks Platoon is the most realistic. "It showed the waste, corruption, filth, napalm, blood and guts, the destruction and absolute craziness of that war," he says. "I thought The Deer Hunters was a valuable statement, especially with its Russian roulette metaphor. I just saw The Green Berets again. It was a joke. Platoon is an important film."
A college dropout and pool hustler from Ada, Okla., Newcombe enlisted in 1967 and, like many of his fellow soldiers, discovered marijuana and opium. "We always knew that relief was only a puff away," says Newcombe. Although he and Stone were in the same platoon, he doesn't remember too much about the future filmmaker. "There's a lot I can't remember," says Newcombe, now 40. "There's a lot I don't think about." One thing he does recall is the incredible resolve of the Vietnamese people. "Here we were in their homeland," says Newcombe, "destroying their lives and villages. I could relate to that. I knew how I would feel if they came to Oklahoma and burned down my house."
Once discharged, Newcombe drifted around for a while, then re-enrolled in college, earning a psychology degree in 1974 and meeting his future wife, Pamela Randall, an insurance agent. They have two small sons, ages 6 and 4. As a unit director and social worker for Mental Health Services of Southern Oklahoma, Newcombe deals with a wide range of people, and is especially careful when counseling fellow vets. "I really don't say much about my own time in Vietnam," he reports. "These men are sick, and I have to be very careful not to overplay my experiences."
An afternoon spent reminiscing about what Newcombe describes as "the most frightening time of my life" takes its emotional toll on Monte. Tears well up in his eyes as he says, "I never wanted to kill anybody. I just wanted to get the hell out of there." The dining room is quiet. The only sounds that can be heard are the muffled shouts of Newcombe's small sons, playing with their toy guns in the front yard.
When Andre Fontenelle went to Vietnam in 1967, the only thing he was thinking about was his wife, Judy, and their new baby. When he got back home to Aberdeen, S.D. a year later, he tried to put the war out of his mind. The first time he went hunting in the Black Hills, it all came back. "I had a queasy feeling in my stomach," says Andre. "It was like I was right back there. I was wondering what was behind the next ridge and whether I was going to receive fire. Beads of perspiration broke out on my forehead."
Fontenelle, 41, arrived in Vietnam the same month as Stone and remembers the filmmaker as "a quiet person who kept to himself." Fontenelle feels Stone's movie rings true, especially the scene in which a patrol is ambushed because someone falls asleep on watch. "It seemed like somebody would always fall asleep on guard," he remembers. "It would be getting light out, and it seemed the whole damn squad would be snoring."
Now a grandfather, Fontenelle works at the post office in Aberdeen. A Vietnam veterans organization was recently started nearby, and he says he's going to join. "I hope the government learns from its mistakes over there," he says. "We lost more than 55,000 men. They've been dead for 20 years. They should be here like me—raising a family, waiting for grandchildren. To me, they were just wasted."