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Traveling exhibit honors Vietnam War veterans

Maryland Public Television is booking the entire state fairgrounds for a two-day event honoring Vietnam War ve

Dudley Hodgson didn't turn out as his parents, both classical musicians, had envisioned.

"They wanted a 110-pound violin player, and instead, they got me," he said. "I wanted to go into the Army."

Six-foot-one and 190 pounds, Hodgson graduated from The Citadel in 1965 and was a wounded veteran of the Vietnam War, serving from November 1967 to January 1969. He was shot in three separate battles, including the Tet offensive, he said.

He went on to become an FBI special agent and later chief investigator for the U.S House of Representatives' Committee on Government Reform and Oversight during the impeachment investigation of President Bill Clinton.

Now 74, Hodgson, of Cockeysville, who goes by "Butch," is playing a role in a Maryland Public Television project called MPT Salutes Vietnam Veterans. He is one of 100 veterans interviewed for a new, three-hour documentary, Maryland Vietnam War Stories, which is set to debut May 24-26 as part of MPT's ambitious 50th anniversary commemoration of the war.

The multi-year-project also includes a traveling exhibit that has been making its way around Maryland since last May, to celebrate the service of Marylanders during the Vietnam War. Currently in Salisbury, the free exhibit will be at the Towson Library from Jan. 19 to Feb. 7.

The project will culminate June 18-19 with a two-day event at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium. That event, called LZ Maryland (a reference to the war term, Landing Zone), will offer a wide range of activities for families — including a motorcycle "Honor Ride" by Vietnam War veterans from around the mid-Atlantic region as a salute to the 1,115 fallen and missing service members from Maryland, a half-size replica of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, displays of a Huey helicopter, among other Vietnam War-era aircraft, and a display of a mobile Army surgical hospital (MASH) unit.

There will also be a "mess hall," in which people can eat, including Vietnamese fare — but not military "Meals Ready to Eat," said Kristen Penczek, director of special events and community engagement for MPT.

MPT is booking the entire fairgrounds and its 20 buildings for LZ Maryland and is expecting 50,000 people for the event, which coincides with Father's Day, organizers said. Booking the fairgrounds in its entirety is rarely done except for the annual state fair, said fairgrounds general manager Andy Cashman.

"It's an event in and of itself," Penczek said. "We kind of stunned [fairgrounds officials] when we asked them for the entire facility."

MPT has been planning the project since 2012 as "a very overdue thank you to our veterans," she added.

The Vietnam War was controversial in its day and many of its returning veterans never got their due. "It was a tumultuous time," Penczek said. "Some of them were spat on."

"You were supposed to take off your uniform and forget the war," said Hodgson, who for a time started drinking after it. But he makes no apologies for having served.

"I gave up a long time ago trying to make civilians understand my experience," he said. "We were doing a job that we were told to do. I'm glad that I didn't have to hang my head and make excuses for why I wasn't there."

The traveling exhibit features wartime and current photos and written recollections of 16 of the 100 veterans who were interviewed for the documentary.

"I would say the average person could spend 15 minutes and read every single panel" in the exhibit," Penczek said. "And you really walk away with a wealth of knowledge and a new appreciation for what these individuals endured."

Although Hodgson is not one of the 16, another Baltimore County resident, retired banker Dennis "Doc" Noah, 68, of Essex, is. Noah was a Navy corpsman in the U.S. Marines who took part in the Tet offensive. He still vividly remembers picking his way through booby-trapped areas during his lone tour of duty, at a time of especially high casualties for American forces.

Noah has remained active as a Vietnam War veteran and is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Baltimore Chapter 451. He is also commander of the Baltimore Ravens' Vietnam Veterans honor guard unit, and is a longtime participant in the Ravens' pre-game flag ceremonies.

Like Hodgson, Noah had to shake off long-standing public resentment of Vietnam veterans, and believes that, although the U.S. technically won the war, "we were defeated politically."

"I took me a lot of years to tell people I was a Vietnam veteran," said Noah, who recently spoke to high school students in Anne Arundel County about his wartime experiences and is making arrangements to do a similar talk, but doesn't know yet at what school it will be. "The Vietnam War was so controversial and still has an impact on the military and society to some extent. It's not easy to talk about, but we have to talk about this stuff, so the next generation understands and we make sure it doesn't happen again. If you don't understand history, it's bound to repeat itself."

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