by Mark Riccobono, Glenn Walters, and John Olson
From the Editor: A number of moving remarks were made on the evening of January 30, 2018, as the Newseum opened its doors to members of the National Federation of the Blind. Our purpose was to celebrate the first of its kind exhibit featuring a tactile and audio exhibit commemorating the Battle of Huế. The evening’s festivities began with a presentation by President Riccobono. Here are his remarks, followed by those of Glenn Walters and John Olson:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. [applause] Welcome to the 2018 Congressional reception of the National Federation of the Blind and welcome to the Newseum. [applause] Most importantly, thank you for being here for this historic event, a time when the blind of the nation join with a camera company and an innovative photographer to change access to information and celebrate the Marines who made it possible for us to live the lives we want. [applause]
In January 1968 the members of the National Federation of the Blind were not in the war. Blindness was thought to be a barrier to providing service for the nation, although the war was at the front of our minds. In the February 1968 issue of the Braille Monitor, our flagship publication, the very first sentence of the report regarding our legislative priorities read as follows: Although the Vietnam War, fiscal and big city problems, and civil rights are expected to dominate the attention of the members of the Second Session of the 90th Congress, efforts will be made legislatively to resolve longstanding difficulties confronting physically disabled men and women and other socially and economically disadvantaged people.” Those words were published at the same time that the men honored in the exhibit we celebrate tonight were courageously battling in Huế City. When those veterans returned from battle in 1968, they did not always receive a welcome consistent with their service to our country. In that same timeframe we, the blind, were not viewed as first-class citizens who had the ability to participate fully in society. Today, those veterans are rightfully celebrated for their service in defense of the values of our great nation. Similarly, the blind are increasingly recognized as contributors and innovators in our communities. One indicator of our progress as a nation is that we the blind are here tonight to help bring an exhibit to the sighted, an exhibit that is long overdue. [applause] Never before has an exhibit of this depth, power, and honor been presented to remember the Marines who fought in the Battle of Huế in February 1968, and never before in history has an extensive exhibit of photographs been brought to life with tactile and auditory complements in a major museum in the United States, enhancing its access and meaning to all who come to experience it, blind or sighted. [applause]
It is my true honor to be here this evening to offer the opening of this exhibit and this program on behalf of the National Federation of the Blind. As a son of a Vietnam Navy veteran, this evening is special to me, particularly because of its celebration of our military personnel who have given so much for our freedom. We would like to begin this evening by first inviting our Vietnam veterans who are here this evening to stand and say hello so we know who you are. Thank you for your service. [prolonged applause]
And now we would like to invite all active military personnel and veterans to stand and say hello so we know where you are. Thank you for your service.
In 1968 the National Federation of the Blind lost a general in the civil rights movement for the blind. Dr. Jacobus tenBroek died in the spring of that year. He served as founder and first President of the National Federation of the Blind. A few years before his death he described the common bond that brings us together in our organization, and although it is sometimes harder to find in America today, I would argue that it is the same bond we strive to protect in our great nation. He said that we have a faith in each other that can move mountains and mount movements. Today, we add strength and speed to that movement.
There are many who helped us get here this evening. Our reception this evening is made possible through the generous support of our friends at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. I think some of them are here this evening [applause], the Lockheed Martin Corporation, FedEx, and we also should acknowledge the leadership of the Newseum for hosting this event, and, of course, the great folks at 3DPhotoWorks who did the heavy lifting and put this together.
We have a number of special dignitaries who are here this evening, along with the members of the National Federation of the Blind, and friends, and donors to our organization. We’d like to acknowledge the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. We also have with us Dr. Marc Maurer, executive director of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults and his wife, Mrs. Maurer. We have Dr. Fred Schroeder, president of the World Blind Union. [applause] We’re really honored to have with us this evening Lieutenant General Ron Christmas, and also joining him is his wife, Mrs. Christmas. General Christmas was a veteran of Vietnam and fought in the Battle of Huế. Thank you. [applause] I know we have many other distinguished guests here, and I thank you for being with the blind of America this evening.
I am proud to introduce our first speaker this evening. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on 12 May 1979 after graduating from The Citadel with a degree in electrical engineering. He has served in a variety of positions during the past forty years, building extensive experience in the military. It is my honor to present to you the Assistant Commandant of the United States Marines, General Glenn Walters. [applause]
General Walters: Oorah! Thank you so much. It is Gail and my distinct honor and pleasure to be with you here tonight. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford also wanted to be here tonight. As it turns out there’s another event just up the street [laughter]; The State of the Union requires his presence. So General Dunford asked if I could attend in his place and represent all of us who are in uniform today to acknowledge and honor all of those who served in Vietnam. [applause] And as my staff, some of whom are here tonight, will tell you, I rarely stick to script, and I’d rather be here than there this evening. [applause].
I would like to offer my thanks to Mark and the staff and members of the National Federation of the Blind. Without your support and efforts, this evening would not be possible. Most importantly, without your dedication this great exhibit that I had a chance to view today would not be on display.
Fifty years ago tonight, the North Vietnamese began an audacious offensive. Their attacks occurred during what was supposed to be a ceasefire. General Christmas, I’m sorry; you’ve probably heard all of this before. That ceasefire was in honor of the Tet holiday. Instead the communist forces used this perceived temporary peace as an opportunity to strike and catch our forces and those of our allies off-guard. The North Vietnamese struck more than one hundred villages and cities across South Vietnam in places like Khe Sahn and the US Embassy compound in Saigon. Huế City was another target. It was the intellectual and cultural heart of Vietnam; it was almost neutral, with very little US or North Vietnamese conventional forces present. However, in the days and the weeks and the months leading up to that offensive, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong quietly infiltrated Huế City, awaiting to attack. Soldiers and Marines responded to that attack across South Vietnam. The character of many of our heroes we know today was shown on those days and weeks in 1968. Brave Americans like John Canley, then a Gunnery Sergeant in Alpha Company, First Battalion, First Marine Regiment. When his company commander fell, seriously wounded, Gunny Canley assumed command of Alpha Company and on numerous occasions exposed himself to intense enemy fire to rescue fellow Marines wounded by the enemy. Although wounded himself Gunny Canley reorganized and scattered his Marines and inspired them to drive the enemy from its fortified positions. For his actions in that first week of fighting in Huế, Gunnery Sergeant Canley earned the Navy Cross. [applause] That’s our nation’s second-highest award, and he would continue to serve until he retired as a Sergeant Major Marines. This is another ad-lib point for me as I share with you that we have gotten word that Gunnery Sergeant, now Sergeant Major, Canley’s award has been upgraded to the Medal of Honor. [applause] I think that this is the first public announcement of that event, and I’m proud to share it with you.
Another of the many heroes that emerged from that intense urban combat in the Battle of Huế was a young Marine Captain by the name of Ron Christmas. He commanded Hotel Company, Second Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. Multiple times Captain Christmas moved across exposed areas under intense enemy fire, both to assess the situation and lead his Marines in the assault on the enemy’s positions. He ignored his own safety to direct accurate fire from atop a tank that in my notes said he requested, but I believe was probably more like requisitioned. [laughter] He personally led his men in house-to-house fighting until the enemy building complex was secured. For his actions in Huế in 1968, Ron Christmas would also receive the Navy Cross. [applause]
And to complete the story, we are honored to have Lieutenant General Ron Christmas and his wife Sherry with us here this evening. [applause] He remains a servant to all Marines today and a staunch advocate for our Marine Corps heritage and our history. Thank you, sir, for being here tonight, and thank you for your decades of service. [applause]
There is one more individual hero I would like to recognize tonight, John Olson. He told me this evening he was a soldier, but I’m not going to alter my remarks. In Huế, John stood side to side with our Marines, and he captured with his camera their story. His brave work allowed our citizens then and now to understand the story of the brave servicemembers who served in Vietnam. [applause] This courage will preserve their story for generations to come. Now, through the efforts of John, this great organization, the National Federation of the Blind, and this spectacular venue and exhibit, more of our great people can more richly understand and appreciate the service and sacrifice of our brave men and women. [applause]
Access to our nation’s story is essential and should be realized by all of us. Many great people in this room have made that more possible. Thank you, and I commend you. [applause] You have improved access to a courageous group of American heroes—fellow Americans who remain undeterred by blindness. Accomplishments realized despite challenges inspire us all; perseverance in the face of adversity is a core component of the American spirit. You encourage us when you break through barriers and overcome obstacles. These traits define our character and thank you for inspiring all of us. [applause]
It is a true pleasure for Gail and I to be a small part of this evening’s event. We are honored to be here to celebrate the determination and esteemed contributions of those who persevere through blindness to participate in honoring in the service of our men and women who wore the cloth of our nation in Vietnam. For all of this, thank you for including us, God bless you all, and semper fidelis.
Mark Riccobono: Thank you General. It was a pleasure to have you and your wife here, and God bless you as well.
In 1968, Robert Kennedy was traveling the nation campaigning for president and attempting to bring people together during a time of great unrest. He said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Although he was not speaking of our next presenter, this quote could be appropriately placed as a caption to the creator of tonight’s exhibit or his photos that appear in it. John Olson received his first camera at age twelve. Early on he knew he wanted to be a war photographer. As fate would have it, in 1966 he was drafted and sent to Vietnam at the age of nineteen. There Olson was assigned to the daily military newspaper Stars and Stripes; if you’re not familiar with it, you can read it on the NFB-NEWSLINE service. Amongst his many activities he spent five days photographing the Battle of Huế City in February 1968, where he captured the images that helped unlock the truth about what was happening in the war for the American public. His photos were published in LIFE magazine, and shortly thereafter at age twenty-one, John became the youngest staff photographer ever hired by LIFE magazine. After spending forty years in photography, including starting his own business and using his business talents to advance technologies and digital photography, he dared to do something few would have even believed was possible: make photographs in a form that blind people could have the freedom to explore on their own terms. [applause]
Fate put John and I together at a convention of the National Federation of the Blind in New York, and John began to tap into the authentic experience of blind people, and together we are now making history. [applause] There are many things I could tell you about John and my experience with him. The most important thing for you to know is that he is a man with a big heart, a broad imagination, and a faith that can move mountains and mount movements. He is a visionary photographer who is blind at heart. [applause] I present to you the principal owner of 3DPhotoWorks, a celebrated war photographer, the passion behind the exhibit that we celebrate tonight, and a partner with the National Federation of the Blind: here is John Olson.
John Olson: You know Federation members, I know many of you. I don’t know all of you, but for a few moments here I wondered if in fact they’d switched out some extras because the Federation members I know—when they get a group—aren’t just kind of laid back and quiet as this group is, you know. So is this the Federation or not? [loud cheering] That’s the people I recognize. Thank you for passing the security test.
You know, today is a historic date, and today is a historic day. It’s a historic day as General Walters has explained to us, because fifty years ago the Battle of Huế and the Tet Offensive occurred. I was a twenty-year-old, highly motivated US Army draftee. I was highly motivated to pursue my profession: it was to be a world-class photojournalist and a world-class war photographer. And I had an incredible job in the army. I was the only combat photographer assigned to Stars and Stripes newspaper in Vietnam. Now Stars and Stripes is one of our partners in this project, and they’ve been an incredible partner, just like the Newseum. Now I want to hear just one more time to prove to the Newseum that this is the Federation. Now what do you think of that? [very loud cheering]
You know, it turns out that if you’re a combat photographer, you can’t fake it. You’ve got to be out in the middle of things; the more dangerous the better. And one way to guarantee you’re going to be in the middle of things—you go where the Marines are. [applause]
So shortly after Tet broke out I heard that fighting in Huế was vicious. It was house-to-house, something that I’d never seen, and if I’m correct, many of the Marines had never seen. So I went to Huế. I was met by a number of eighteen-, nineteen-, and twenty-year-old Marines. They were dirty, unshaven, hungry, and angry. And if you’re a combat photographer who probably doesn’t carry a weapon, there’s nothing better than that combination to keep you safe. And they kept me alive for my time in Huế, and they allowed me the opportunity to make a series of photographs that ran in Stars and Stripes and LIFE magazine. And that launched my career, and it gave me access to people and places for decades that I never would have had had I not made that series of photographs.
At a point in my career, I began to realize how critical access to images had been to my life. Now I never met a blind person, but I began to wonder what it was like for people of the blind community who don’t have access to visual information. Now I have no engineering experience, no neuroscience experience, but that day nearly ten years ago I set out to develop a means by which the blind community could share in art, in photographs, and to acquire visual information for learning and enjoying life. [applause]
Now I was very fortunate. I hired some really talented people who were able to devise a means by which we could convert two-dimensional images to three-dimensional data, we could sculpt them to be tactile, and then we could print the image and data on top of the relief. In an early meeting with my partners from the National Federation of the Blind [cheers] it was explained to me by director of assistive technology Anne Taylor— and for those of you who know Anne, you know there’s no middle ground with Anne; she tells it the way it is. She explained to me the need to convey as much information as possible to the blind community. On the way out the door she stopped us and said, “And this will be our gift to the sighted.” [applause]
So tonight, as you experience the ten tactile images there, keep in mind that this is a gift that we’re learning is as compelling to the sighted community as it is to the Federation members and the blind community.
Now I did not develop this on my own. I developed it in partnership with Federation members and the leadership of the Federation. Had it not been for you and your leadership, we wouldn’t have a product today. Early on, in one of our first meetings with a large number of Federation members, we invited in ten of you and asked for your input, and it went from there. When we proposed this exhibition to the Newseum and they understood the historic nature of the exhibit and the opportunity to be the first major museum in the United States to serve the blind community, they seized the opportunity. [applause] Our goal at 3DPhotoWorks is to create a worldwide network of museums, now that the technology exists, that’s willing to serve the blind community. Prior to this evening, the Federation invited leaders from the museum community from different parts of the country. When, as Federation members, you experience this exhibit tonight and you have the opportunity to convey to one of those industry leaders the importance of visual information, make sure you tell them how you feel and tell them from your heart. Because I’ve learned that the number one thing about Federation members is that you tell it like it is, and this is your opportunity to convey the importance of what we’ve achieved. Thank you very much. [applause]
Mark Riccobono: Thank you John. Nancy’s here, right—part of the dynamic duo. Thank you both for being here.
Tonight we celebrate our veterans and the progress we have made as a country and as a blindness civil rights movement. Tonight we help to give back to our veterans, and we set a new standard for photographic experiences in cultural institutions across this great nation. Let tonight be the spark that ignites passion for new dimensions in photography where the visual and the nonvisual combine to create an experience that is beyond our current understanding of presentation and perception. Let this moment strengthen our faith and encourage us to welcome others into our movement so that we can revolutionize how history is displayed and commemorated in our nation. Maybe we’ll even change the participation of blind people in military service. [applause]
In 1968, Robert Kennedy said these words that speak to our purpose here tonight and our mission in the National Federation of the Blind: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.” [applause] Or, as we say in the National Federation of the Blind [crowd chanting the name of the organization along with him], "together with love, hope, and determination, we transform dreams into reality." That’s what we’ve done here today, and that’s what we will do in the future. Congratulations to us, and thank you for being here. [applause]