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Vietnam vets recall 1973 withdrawal
Sunday, March 31, 2013
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the departure of the last U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, though many divorced themselves from the Vietnam War long before March 29, 1973.
While the fall of Saigon two years later is remembered as the final day of the war, for some local veterans, the conflict had ended when their duty there was completed years before.
Sonny Richardson, commander of the American Legion Homer Dillard Post 78 in Martinsville, served in the Army as a helicopter repairman, flying on choppers that supplied ground troops in 1970 and ’71. Though Richardson now spends his time educating the community on the plight of veterans and making sure none are forgotten, he said he had heard very little about the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal.
That, however, is a problem to Richardson, who does a flag presentation at local schools, shows a film about Vietnam and answers students’ questions about the war.
“They want to know (about it) from an individual who has been there,” he said, partially because of the stigma associated with Vietnam.
While the Legion and other community organizations honor all wars, he believes too little attention is focused on Vietnam.
“We should do it more often,” he said. World War I and II, even Korean War is remembered “every military holiday. It’s never Vietnam, ever. We honor veterans, (but) not the war.”
Post 78 honors veterans from specific conflicts every year, Richardson said. “I’m losing my World War II veterans. I’ve already lost four this year after losing four all of last year,” he said.
As aging veterans die, perhaps Vietnam veterans will gain a greater place of honor, but Richardson said the circumstances of U.S. involvement in Vietnam make it harder to see those who served in such a controversial campaign in the same heroic light as their predecessors.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “It was uncalled for; maybe that’s why they don’t honor it.
“We didn’t have a purpose for being over there,” Richardson added. “That was always said when I was over there (by people he served with). Even officers. (They said,) ‘We’re here to fight a war. Don’t ask me why.’”
Paul Shivley of Collinsville served in Vietnam with the Marine Corps but never fired a shot in anger. That’s because, according to the U.S. government, he didn’t officially serve during the Vietnam War Era.
Shivley was stationed in South Vietnam off and on from June 1963 to June 1964, he said. Now, when he goes to a VA Hospital and is asked what era he served, he’s told that despite the fact that he was one of many U.S. military personnel to serve in Vietnam, his service was during an “in-between time” in military history.
Shivley said his battalion made tactical landings as part of a task force that carried amphibious landing craft, tanks and a battery force with cannons onto the island late in 1963. Later, his group was in Hong Kong for R&R” when the ship he was on was ordered back to the U.S. Naval Base at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
“I could never figure out why we did that,” he said. “They don’t tell you much. But watching some of the news in later years, I figured out it was during the coup (of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem).”
Shivley said his battalion only moved troops back and forth around Saigon during the coup and no shots were fired in anger. He said he was then sent to Japan for R&R and was in Okinawa when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“I remember all of the salutes that were fired” that day, before leaving Okinawa the day of funeral, he said.
When his enlistment ended in June of 1964, Shivley still had two years of his six-year commitment left, during which he could be called from inactive reserve duty. However, he said, his phone never rang.
“Enough people had volunteered, so they had enough folks and they didn’t need any more help,” he said. Some volunteered to be sent back to Vietnam from reserve duty, but Shivley wasn’t interested.
“I told my wing commander as we talked about re-enlistment, ‘If I didn’t learn anything else in my enlistment, it’s not to volunteer for stuff,’” he said.
Though his tour lasted about two years in the early ’70s, Richardson said even then the withdrawal seemed inevitable.
“I knew it was going to happen when I was leaving,” he said. “You could feel things (calming down).”
Patrols became less frequent and helicopter traffic overhead was less constant, he said. “You could feel that things were changing a little,” he added.
When Richardson left the Army in July 1971, he flew back to the states to Seattle, where the adjustment period began.
It was 83 degrees in Seattle that day, “and I was freezing,” he said. He had gotten so used to a climate with a heat index of 125 to 130 degrees and almost constant rain, the mild weather of the Pacific Northwest was a shock. “We were in our overcoats,” he said.
To make matters worse, returning soldiers had to worry about being taunted by protesters or those opposed to the war when they returned. Often, servicemen either were told to change into civilian clothes before exiting to blend into the crowd or were snuck into the terminal to avoid attracting attention, he said.
Wearing overcoats in the summer heat didn’t help matters, he said. “People were calling us names and yelling at us,” Richardson said.
After returning to Martinsville, “every day, I’d watch the news” about the latest movements in the war, he said. That August, he said, he saw a report that his old company had been hit in a mortar attack, wiping out the helicopter and crew. “This was two months after I left, and I’m sitting (home) looking at it,” he said.
For a year, “I was jumpy, jittery. Couldn’t sleep,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t used to quiet” because he had become so accustomed to sleeping with helicopters flying overhead.
It took about a year for his nerves to settle, he said, “and mine probably wasn’t as bad as the grunts out in the fields.”
Shivley left the Marines as the war began to escalate, but he didn’t follow it closely, he said. Instead, he came home and trained to become an iron worker, putting his talents to work on such projects as the Sears Tower in Chicago.
He kept up with war “off and on,” he said. What he did learn about the conflict came from friends and colleagues, many of whom re-enlisted and returned to Vietnam.
“I had a few family members and buddies that were drafted. Some had very bitter memories.”
At least two men from his battalion in the Marines served in the war and never returned, Shivley said.
Shivley, 71, said part of the reason for the bitterness stems from the way the war was handled.
“You win the fights, but you lose the war,” he said. “I can’t think of a time when any unit there was defeated. You lost 50,000 people for nothing. What did we do? We gave (South Vietnam) back to them.
“I think we’re doing the same thing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added.
The most moving experience since the war, Shivley said, was when he went to Washington and visited the Vietnam Memorial in the ’90s. “That was really hard,” he said.
Richardson said he wished more would be done to honor Vietnam veterans specifically, citing the “Moving Wall” replica of the Vietnam Memorial as a good example. Richardson took a class of students to see the wall in Rocky Mount. “That was an honor there, because it was just for Vietnam veterans,” he said.
Richardson and Shivley both compared the experience of returning to Vietnam to the trials of current veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, returning home from conflicts with no concrete resolution. Especially in a recessive economy, the re-initiation to civilian life can be difficult.
When Richardson left for the Army, he had a job at DuPont. When he returned, it was waiting for him. “These guys coming back now, there’s no jobs for them,” he said. “They can’t adjust; they go through divorces. They can’t handle it.”
In another generation, when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are remembered, Richardson thinks the mental toll will be remembered more than the physical.
“Thirty-40 years from now, their situation probably will be a little worse than ours,” he said. “We had health problems,” such as the exposure to Agent Orange and the lasting effects, many of which don’t manifest until years later.
“These guys will have mental problems,” Richardson added, noting the high suicide rate among modern veterans — 154 in 2012, according to a New York Times report.
“Guys in Vietnam didn’t commit suicide,” Richardson said. “If I made it through Vietnam, do you think I’m going to come home and commit suicide?”
That’s where civic organizations like the American Legion can help, he said, but young veterans largely don’t join. Richardson said only one member of Post 78 served after Vietnam, and that was during the First Gulf War in 1991.
“I ask guys to join the Legion, and they say, ‘What can the Legion do for me?’ That tells me they need help,” he said.