THORNDIKE — Vince Gabriel Jr. has been back from the Vietnam War for decades.

But his tour of duty will last his lifetime.

Gabriel, a musician whose stage name is Blind Albert, presented “A Soldier’s Story,” about his Vietnam experience, to Mount View High School students, community members and veterans this week.

Gabriel’s sixth annual multimedia presentation coincided with the 37th anniversary of the end of the conflict and English teacher’s Tanya Hubbard’s senior class projects on the Vietnam War.

Gabriel, 64, was about the same age as some of the Mount View seniors when he learned he was headed for Vietnam.

Gabriel said he was on a two-week summer vacation in California when his draft letter arrived at his parents’ home in New Jersey. He flew home to the East Coast and a couple of days later he reported to basic training. Then it was on to Vietnam.

When the 20-year-old arrived in Vietnam, it smelled like diesel fuel, gunpowder and death.

“I was convinced death was waiting for me,” said Gabriel, adding he and the other Jersey boys were “scared down to our souls.”

“We were new meat, scared … like sheep going to slaughter,” he said. “No more cars, no more beers, no more girls; nothing but fear.”

Gabriel’s presentation included songs, Polaroid photos of his family and video footage and pictures of the war — including famous news pictures in Saigon of a South Vietnamese official shooting a Viet Cong prisoner in the head and a Buddhist monk protesting by setting himself on fire.

“War changes you, I know. Mine is one of millions of story about war,” Gabriel said. “Each is different and in many respects they’re the same.”

All those called to serve left homes, wives, girlfriends, children or friends.

Gabriel shared a story of Howard R. Spitzer, a friend who served in his infantry unit; they both were assigned the exposed and dangerous leading point position on walking jungle patrols.

“We were chosen not because we were brave or skilled, but because we were there,” Gabriel said.

One day Gabriel said he was pulled off the point and replaced by Spitzer. Spitzer walked into a land mine that day in 1969 and died.

“Why am I here and his name is on the (Vietnam War Memorial) wall?” Gabriel asked.

“I died inside but I kept on living,” he said.

The blues performer said he regretted killing a North Vietnamese soldier but that “you want to live and you’ll do anything you have to survive.”

Gabriel said the man he killed no doubt had family, too, and that his death likely devastated them.

“I think about it all the time,” Gabriel said. “I’m not proud of it — but that’s war.”

Gabriel said he takes medication to keep depression at bay and he attends a weekly therapy group for combat soldiers at the VA hospital in Togus.

Whenever he hears a helicopter, “I’m right back in Vietnam,” he said.

Mount View High School senior Emily Robideau, 18, selected the theme “Children of the War” as her senior English project.

“I chose it because I have a child myself and wanted to know how war changes things for kids,” she said, adding that her daughter, Jordan, turns 2 years old this weekend.

“They had nothing — good clothes, homes or food,” said Robideau, who plans to attend Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor to study education.

“This project didn’t just impact me, it impacted all of us.”

Hubbard said she started the senior Vietnam War research projects about two decades ago as a way to keep soon-to-be graduates engaged in school after spring break.

She said the students “have raised the bar every year.”

Gabriel had some parting advice for the class of 2012 before he launched into a song: “Have a good life and do good things.”

Beth Staples — 861-9252

[email protected]


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