We were young, invincible; we knew the awful things would happen to the "other guy." The war in Vietnam was nothing more than a stumbling block, something our country needed us to do before we continued on with our lives, our educations, marriages, raising rug rats, growing old with a sweetheart. Our tools of war were lethal and high tech, the best bombs and bullets taxpayer money could buy. Turn us loose, let us do what we were trained to do, we will win this war then bring us home to a grateful nation.
But war doesn't cater to pipedreams or politicians. Our invincibility was the first casualty as the reality of rockets and mortars, punji stakes and poisonous snakes, anti-aircraft fire and an invisible nemesis chewed up optimism and spit out skepticism. Death was real; our potential futures, in doubt.
"The other guy" did have awful things happen to him and we saw what those awful things were. Then we realized there were no "other guys," only guys. Fate, luck, coincidence, friendly fire, a jammed M-16, a Coke can booby-trap, a flame-out, a misfire, carelessness, conspired against our survivability and labored vigorously to make us "the other guy." Yet most of us did survive then came home to the real world of round-eyed women, baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolets. But our country had changed. We arrived to discover an ungrateful nation governed by ungrateful leaders. But we came home. Wounds would heal or fester, minds would mend or break, yet we had been given the opportunity to live out the American dream while suffering the nightmare of Vietnam.
"The other guys" came home, too, with the six ladies who shared their fate. Parents, spouses and offspring, sisters and brothers, knew "the other guys" had come home, but not until 1982 was the country as a whole able to gaze upon a long black wall and reflect on the true cost of freedom. The Wall was built surrounded by controversy and protests, but with the passage of time the huge chunk of black granite became a healing location, a place for closure, a spot to reflect, to remember... it became Our Wall.
"The other guys" included Richard B. Fitzgibbon and his son Lance Cpl. Richard B. Fitzgibbon III. Three sets of fathers and sons are etched on Our Wall. The first day in Vietnam for 997 of "the other guys" was their last day in Vietnam, while 1,448 "other guys" completed their one year tour but never boarded the Freedom Bird having perished within their last 24 hours "in-country." Plus "the other guys" devastated small town America: the 475 residents of Beallsville, Ohio lost six of its boys; six of the nine male 1966 graduates of a small copper mining town in Arizona are on Our Wall.
Approximately 2.7 million men and women served "in-country" - or, as we like to call it, "Boots on the Ground." Two-thirds of us volunteered, and "the other guys" turned out to be 73 percent volunteers. One "other guy," an African-American Marine Pfc. Dan Bullock, occupies a unique place on Our Wall; Dan was the youngest to fall, only 15 years of age.
"The other guys" visited The Walk of Heroes War Memorial in Rockdale County May 6 - 12. The Moving Wall, Our Wall, was a homecoming for 11 Rockdale and 12 Newton County heroes, "the other guys." The event created breakeven financial support from community philanthropists, businesses, patriots, veterans, and civil leaders. Long, hot, tough days were endured by Walk of Heroes board members and dozens of volunteers, many working 10 to 14 hours daily to make sure "the other guys" received the proper respect and recognition earned so many years ago in rice paddies, dense jungles, rubber plantations, and mountain resorts turned into death-traps.
Unbelievable abilities and grit came into play to bring "the other guys" home, but to give credit where credit is due would require a full page of individual listings. Suffice to say, the event was a success with a good turnout, yet in this writer's and Vietnam veteran's opinion, it was not a great turnout. The heavy advertising blitz, personal invitations and multi-county presentations, generated noble interest yet lacked impressive public participation.
The main culprit was our national malady known as indifference. Too busy with this, too busy with that, not enough time to take the time to honor heroes that gave their all so the rest of us could have the gift of opportunity to make a choice, and yes, even freedom to make excuses. Not all events draw large crowds, that is a given, but once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to offer marks of respect, education, wholesome family experiences and patriotism, are counterbalances to the flag stompers, activists "offended" by Old Glory, and flip-flop legislators engaged more for votes than paying wordless tribute to mere kids that sacrificed their tomorrows for our todays.
Nevertheless, "the other guys" visited Rockdale County, and so did the survivors. Combat photographer John Hosier, Jr. served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Central Highlands. His vivid photographs have been combined with over 2000 related Vietnam items in his four-tent display "Through the Eyes" traveling Vietnam Museum. John's exhibit may be the best I've ever viewed. A holder of 3 college degrees, John has returned to Vietnam fifteen times to assist in the construction of the Vietnamese American Peace Park and several clinics and schools.
On one trip he met a Betel Nut red-gummed missing teeth Mama-san who served as a sapper with the Viet Minh before WWII, fought against the Japanese, trained sappers during the French-Indochina War, and completed her career training sappers during "the American War." She told John, "French no good, horrible. Japanese brutal, like beasts. War bad, bad things happen, but American soldier honorable. America my favorite enemy." John was wounded four separate times in "the American War."
A Kiowa, two Iroquois, and one Cayuse were positioned on the parade ground in front of the amphitheater. Nearly all Army choppers, except for the sleek Cobra attack helicopter, are named after Native American Indian Nations. Politically correct liberal newspapers claim the tradition is racist; the Native American Indian population certainly does not, and even protested when the Cobra was not given an Indian name.
Albeit, the one Bell Kiowa, two Bell UH-1 Hueys (Iroquois) and the one Hughes OH-6 Cayuse (nick-named Loach) were on display courtesy of the North American Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association. Under the supervision of Vietnam veteran chopper pilots, the general public was allowed to climb aboard the choppers to explore, sit behind a machine gun, or take the pilot's seat. (No ammunition and no whirling blades). Experience guided the tours.
Ed "Hornet 24" Hughes flew the iconic Hueys from the Chu Lai base in 1970 and 1971. Ed was shot down twice.
Larry "Rebel II" Pigg flew the C-Model Huey gunships during his 1st tour of duty with the 1st Infantry Division then commanded a Cobra Attack Helicopter on his 2nd tour with the 334th Attack Helicopter Company. Commenting on each chopper, Larry stated, "The Huey was low and slow with four sets of eyes. The Snake (Cobra) was high and fast, plus carried the same amount of ordinance as 4 C-Model Hueys. If you needed to shoot a lot of rockets, the Cobra was your ride."
Brock "Blue Star 26" Nicholson flew out of Ninh Hoa with the famous "Blue Star" 48th Assault Helicopter Company. Apparently Brock took the liberty to paint a Blue Star on one of the Association's Hueys.
Jerry "Ghost Rider 23" Seago served as a maintenance officer in Pleiku with the 189th Assault Helicopter Company. Jerry flew both C and H Model Hueys.
Terry "Thunder 42" Lanier flew OH-6 Loaches and UH-1H Hueys with HQ, 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne.
Lynn "Jayhawk 17" Stephens served two tours, 1967/68 and 1972/73. He flew the Huey and Cobra. Asked which chopper he favored, Lynn said, "Well, I liked the Huey but the Cobra was air-conditioned. Which one would you pick?"
The North Carolina Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association has educated over 80,000 school children on the cost of freedom. Funds to keep the organization sustainable come from 98 percent of its members. Their motto: "Promoting and Perpetuating the Bonds of Brotherhood". Visit their website at www.ncvhpa.org
The evening events featured a variety of great guest speakers, including State Senator Hunter Hill, yet the most reflective speaker was Colonel Wayne Waddell. Colonel Waddell served in Vietnam as an F-105 pilot. The F-105 Thunderchief was the workhorse in the air war over North Vietnam. Affectionately called "the Thud," "Lead Sled," and "Hyper Hog," the F-105 was said to be a "Triple-Threat" - she could bomb you, strafe you, or fall on you. Rugged and deadly, she proved her worth.
Colonel Waddell had been "in-country" less than three months when on July 5, 1967 while bombing railroad marshalling yards close to the Chinese border his F-105 suffered a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. He was on his 46th mission, or as Colonel Waddell maintains, "My 46th and a half mission." Forced to eject from low altitude, in seconds he landed less than 100 yards from the anti-aircraft guns that had blown his plane out of the sky. Colonel Wayne Waddell would spend the next five years and five months as a P.O.W. in Communist North Vietnam. His narrative is the subject of an upcoming "A Veteran's Story."
Yes, the boys came home, and we honored them. Now they are gone once again, to be remembered by family and friends, and to continue traveling with the Moving Wall so John Q. Citizen has the opportunity of learn the true cost of freedom. These boys are the heroes. We, the lucky ones, are only the survivors. God bless each and every name on Our Wall.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us