A small group of men maneuver through the dense bushes, each clad in standard-issue Army-olive drab, each with a loaded rifle.
The first loud bang causes them all to drop. More bangs follow, and the fire team scrambles to get cover from the invisible ambushers. Soon it’s a full firefight.
The team leader calls for backup, and soon a squad of Navy SEALs appear, escorting the team away from the danger while tending to the wounded.
It’s not a scene from war movie, but rather the Pennsylvania Military Museum’s annual Vietnam Revisited. The “living history bivouac,” or historic temporary camp, was erected in front of the museum to give visitors a sense of what it was like to live and patrol in the jungle during the Vietnam War.
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This year marked the sixth bivouac, museum educator Joe Horvath said. Out here, he said, the “cheese factor” doesn’t exist — everyone taking part in the re-enactments is serious about the work, and isn’t trying to emulate Hollywood’s version of the war.
Speaking of the first year the museum offered the bivouac, Horvath said, “We said if we do it, and get any pushback from the veterans saying it was hokey, we wouldn’t do it any further.”
But, he said, the first year was “amazing,” as the veterans who visited shook their hands and thanked them.
Horvath and some of his fellow re-enactors offered to take the public on patrols through the “jungle” — the dense brush surrounding the museum. During patrols, he explained different strategies used to minimize the noise a soldier could make while keeping a sharp eye out for traps and ambushes.
Dominick Halterman, 20, of Bellefonte, said he’s watched the Vietnam event grow over the three years he’s participated in it.
This year marked the first year he tried bringing the Navy SEALs into the mix. The first SEAL teams were formed in 1962, he said, and Vietnam was the first major conflict they participated in. Outfitted in a tiger-strip camouflage top and blue jeans, he said the look is accurate based on photographs of the SEALs at that time.
Halterman and his fellow SEAL re-enactors cobbled together their gear and weapons, he said. This includes the modified rifles the SEALs were known to use.
“Everyone funds their own gear,” he said. “The World War II re-enactments are a little more popular, so the funds can go out to everyone, but since there isn’t a lot available for Vietnam, we have to find it and piece it together.”
A majority of the period-accurate gear used over the weekend was provided by the Greater Pennsylvania Military Preservation Association. The uniforms, weapons, tents, vehicles and other gear was accumulated over many years, coordinator Tom Gray said.
“We’re big on educating the public on the military of that time period,” Gray said, saying that the GPMPA provides equipment and re-enactments of numerous conflicts over many years.
Overall, he said, he loves seeing the veterans come out, saying, “That’s our main objective — to honor them and thank them and let them know what they did was appreciated.”
For veterans who are part of the event, the re-enactments can be downright cathartic.
Lou Frank, 66, of Camp Hill, served in Vietnam from 1968-69. He said the weekend’s re-enactments were very realistic.
“The group themselves are very professional and very historically correct,” he said. “They’re very dedicated to ... showing living history and giving uneducated people a chance to understand about Vietnam, not just the way it’s portrayed in the media.”
Frank said last year was his first time portraying his experiences in Vietnam. Seeing the team preparing to go out on patrol was very accurate, he said. The only thing they didn’t have was the fear on their faces.
He was there for everything, he said — to see groups go out on patrol as well as watching the wounded come back. It helped bring a real sense of closure, a word he said he doesn’t usually use.
“It’s a good experience,” he said. “I go to the the VA hospital in Lebanon, and I always tell everyone, ‘You have to come out to one of these re-enactments, even if just for a few hours, and get it out of your body and mind.’ ”