It is a word and a place that brought up distinct, and often rugged, memories for a number of Baltimore District employees who gathered together on Sept. 9.
Organized by Capt. Patrick Border, the event was a local part of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration, designed to thank and honor veterans of that war and to pay tribute to those on the home front.
Col. Ed Chamberlayne, district engineer, joined a group of approximately 10 district personnel who came and listened to the stories about a piece of military history that still impacts America.
"I appreciate and would like to celebrate the service of our district Vietnam veterans,” said Chamberlayne. “I know there are many more Vietnam-era vets in Baltimore District, but I was honored to spend some time speaking and sharing stories with our veterans who were able to attend the ceremony. Our Iraq and Afghanistan vets really need to reach out to our Vietnam vets as they share more common experience than many really understand."
The 50-year old scanned black-and-white photo that accompanies this article may be hazy and unfocused, but the memories it represents are crystal clear for Walt Beach, seasonal wastewater operator at Tioga-Hammond and Cowanesque Dams, and Jerry Rifkin, Contracting Division deputy chief, and others.
Decades later, Marine Corps Cpl. Beach can still vividly recall calling his mother on her birthday from Da Nang, South Vietnam. At the time, telephone communication was via ham radio operator links across the Pacific and America, often filled with clicks and audio fadeouts. When each party finished speaking, they were to say “over” and then the operators knew to switch from receive to send. “I found out later that an operator had called my mother in Caton, New York, with the same instructions so when my call came through, we could talk smoothly. I got to talk first, and did, wishing mom a happy birthday ‘over’. All I could hear on the other end was sobbing and crying, asking what had happened to me. When the call went through, my mother had convinced herself that something bad had happened to me and that this was our last goodbye. All said and done, we did get to talk a little even though they limited us to five minutes.”
Beach served in Vietnam for 13 months beginning in October of 1967 in Marine Corps aviation ordnance. “If it blew up, we handled it,” he said. “When not flying, we were preparing bombs and/or rockets for the flight line or setting up the daily lists for the aircraft flying bombing missions. We also got to mix the napalm and fill the canisters, not a good place to be when there was a rocket attack going on.”
He was in Da Nang during the 1968 Tet offensive (named for the lunar new-year holiday). “It was the hardest time to get through. Almost nightly rocket attacks would keep you unnerved,” he said. “When I arrived home, only my mother and girlfriend (now his wife, Janet, of 46 years) were there. At home, no one came over to ask me anything. It was like I was a non-person.
Today, it is not uncommon to see strangers in an airport thank military members in uniform for their service. This was not the case for most Vietnam vets; indeed, quite the opposite - sometimes strangers would accost vets in uniform with cursing and derogatory comments.
Jerry Rifkin served in the Army infantry from 1969-1971 at Fort Bragg, Fort McClellan and Fort Hood. His service in Vietnam was “physically challenging, emotional, stressful, and above all, frightening.”
Rifkin shared a memory that many vets of that era will recognize: “I remember sitting next to another GI (probably because no one else would sit with him) on a flight to San Francisco. I was on my way to Vietnam, and he was returning to Guam. We talked during the flight and he offered to show me where to go once on the ground. He also mentioned that we both would have time to visit the airport lounge and he would treat. It was January 1970 and we were both in uniform. Once seated we were approached by a waitress and both of us ordered mixed drinks which immediately caused the waitress (doing her job) to ask us for proof of age. Not thinking about it, I produced my military identification card. The waitress quickly noted that I was NOT 21 and refused me service. My 21st birthday was just days away in February, and I bitterly recall thinking that I was old enough to go to war but too young to be served.”
Rifkin came home in the summer of 1971. “Most ordinary folks were very much out of touch with what was going on at the time, especially with the conflict in Southeast Asia. I remember standing on a street corner near my home a day after returning from Vietnam and saw one of the neighborhood guys approaching me, expecting a warm ‘how are you and glad to see you back.’ Instead it was a matter of fact ‘what's new’ and had I seen another mutual friend that day. It was like it had only been a couple of days since he last saw me, instead of a couple of years. It was a huge letdown.”
My service was as an enlisted signals intelligence analyst for the Air Force Security Service. I had a security clearance and worked in a building with no windows on Okinawa and the Philippines (and later at National Security Agency) in support of air operations in Southeast Asia. Four days after discharge in August 1972, I was back in college in Wisconsin with no desire to socialize with other vets except my brother, Chris, who served on submarines.
“Learning to let go was the only way to get through the aftermath of the war. It does not diminish the memories good and bad, however, it will help keep you from reliving it daily and tearing yourself apart,” said Beach.
For more information on the national commemoration, go to https://www.facebook.com/VietnamWar50th.