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Veteran Photo Officer Shares Memories Of Vietnam And Comrades

Evening Edition

Some of the Marines who saw action during the Vietnam War carried cameras instead of guns. Their mission: Cover the 10,000 Marines hunkered down between North and South Vietnam in 1968. The officer in charge of the 32 photographers who documented the year long battle lives in San Diego County.

"I've had a career that no one could touch. There's no way anyone could experience the things that I've gone through," retired Marine Corps Capt. Joe Heard said. He spent 30 years in the service and has the pictures to prove it. He was the commanding photo officer of the Third Marine Division from Camp Pendleton. Heard tears up when recalling the picture of an 18-year-old who volunteered and probably spent 90 days in boot camp before ending up in Vietnam in 1968.

"I don't think he looks 16, that's the reason that picture was shot," Heard said. The expression on his face tells the story of what it was all about.

"All of a sudden you come from high school or college, you're away from home and you don't have a bed to sleep in and you're going to spend 14 months in that environment, it's rough," said Heard.

His group of photographers captured the daily life of thousands of Marines deployed to Vietnam. He says they were stuck at the cross roads between North and South Vietnam.

"Khe Sahn was quite a battle," he said. "That's what these pictures depict. They show the actual situation in which men have to live and in some cases die."

Two of his Vietnam photographers gave their lives trying to capture the moment. A painful memory for Heard, who says all of them were devoted to the mission.

"They're fantastic. We look like a bunch of men who were just drug out of the sewer, but we were really there doing a job and that's what its all about," he said.

Heard recently donated 39 of his photos to the Veterans Village San Diego. It's an organization formed by Vietnam veterans 25 years ago. CEO Phil Landis hung one of the pictures -- of a grizzled Marine with a cigar in his mouth -- in his office.

"It just resonates so much, if you've been in combat, especially during the Vietnam War, that's the look. It's also the look of combat vets that joins us at VVSD," Landis said.

Heard says the photographers were the last to know, but first to go on the battlefield. "This operation takes place in an hour, get your gear and boom you're gone. So that's the last to know, but there the first to go off of that plane, if it comes to that," Heard said.

And these photos were given to VVSD to remind the younger generations what their fathers, grandfathers and uncles endured. Many of the photos are in the Marine Corps archives in Washington D.C.

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