Two Vietnam Veterans, An Art Show, and Half a Century Later
Each spring when the CUMC Art Show calls for submissions from faculty, staff, and students, David Forrest, MD, enters a few paintings. One year the P&S alumnus and faculty member submitted a “pop art” take on the Chiclets gum cover; another year he entered a pastoral scene of a Vermont farm.
This year Dr. Forrest selected four paintings he created in Vietnam—where he served as an Army psychiatrist between 1968 and 1969—to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Vietnam War. Dr. Forrest attended the show’s opening, chatted with several other artists, and then left the paintings of the helicopters, trucks, and “hootches” of his base at Long Binh on the wall of a study room in the Teaching and Learning Center on the lower levels of the Hammer Health Sciences Center.
About a month later, CUMC public safety officer Pio Rivera was on patrol in Hammer and walked by the paintings. The hootches (Army slang for housing) and water truck in one of the paintings immediately caught his eye. “I noticed a sign that said Long Binh 69. The old truck was the five-ton water truck that we would drive. That blew me away,” says Mr. Rivera.
Between 1971 and 1972, Mr. Rivera had been stationed at the same base he saw in the painting. He served with the 120th Aviation Company, a helicopter unit. Mr. Rivera turned 19 shortly after arriving in Vietnam. “I didn’t see a lot of action while I was there,” he says, “but the experience made me grow up, a little bit faster than I was supposed to.”
Mr. Rivera was determined to own the painting Dr. Forrest exhibited. It took him a few weeks to work up the nerve to contact the artist. “It took me a while to get the courage to talk to this guy, almost a month,” Mr. Rivera says. “I didn’t know how I was going to feel about that or how he would feel.”
When the two connected, with the help Robert Sideli, MD, chief information officer for CUMC and organizer of the art show, Mr. Rivera and Dr. Forrest shared memories of the war and life at Long Binh. Dr. Forrest agreed to sell the painting to Mr. Rivera in return for a donation to P&S, a donation Mr. Rivera hopes will be used to support Columbia research that benefits veterans.
The CUMC art show, an annual event since 2010, exhibits art submitted by students, faculty, and staff and gives artists a way to share their talents with the medical center community. “Getting together with Pio,” says Dr. Forrest, “epitomizes the real value of Bob’s shows—that they bring together people from all walks of life at the medical center, reminding everyone how many people it takes from all different occupations to make a wonderful medical center like ours succeed.”
“Seeing that painting, buying it from Dr. Forrest, talking to him about the war: It’s been an adventure and a half,” says Mr. Rivera.