Monday, June 12, 2006

Vietnam Vet Recalls Threat of Nuclear War

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Lee Nicholls stood on a patch of earth decorated with military stars and pointed his way around Congress Park to some of the projects he created for this city.

'That fountain over there,' he said, gesturing at a trickling waterfall. 'This planter at the top of the hill,' he said, nodding his head in the direction. 'The sign over there at the spring,' he offered, before turning his attentions to the plaques commemorating servicemen and women inside the octagon-shaped War Memorial.

The one in particular that caught his eye honored those who served from 1917-1918. Nicholls pointed out a name that read Everett Lee.

'That was my grandfather,' he said.

A few miles away, a different era was being remembered. One that was in Nicholl's lifetime.

'That whole period had a certain amount of idealism to it. America was young and thought that it could do anything in those days,' he said. 'That's why we have a Peace Corps. That's why we have special (operations) forces,' said Nicholls, who spent time with both.

After surviving the notoriously tough and extensive training of Basic Underwater Demolition School (BUDS), he joined the Underwater Demolition Team. The UDTs were the Navy Special Warfare unit and a pre-cursor of the Navy SEALs.

'The SEALs were formed out of the Underwater Demolition Team in January 1962. They were the brainchild of JFK,' Nicholls said.

'During the Cuban Missile crisis, I was in the Cuba area on a submarine. During that whole period we were conducting training missions, and I'll tell you from one day to the next, I didn't know whether we would wake up and find ourselves in a nuclear war,' he recalled. 'We didn't find this out until much later, but the Russians already had tactical nuclear artillery weapons ashore, which means all us froggies would have been crispy critters.'

'We were sending people to Vietnam since 1961,' said Nicholls, who went into the Navy in 1959 and was honorably discharged in 1963 before serving another four years in the active reserves.

'I wasn't in Vietnam but I had an instructor, and several of my classmates who went. Out of the 840-something we sent to Vietnam from my teams, 49 are dead and I couldn't tell you how many were wounded,' he said. 'Sometimes when I go to the reunions and I see these guys missing pieces of an arm or an eye, I feel like a truant from school.' he said, flanked by eight columns supporting the open-air War Memorial.

'Here we sit at a monument of wars to end all wars. The nobility is reflected in this monument, the way it is open on top and you could see the stars at night,' he said.

'After the war to end all wars, the war where my grandfather died, they said: 'Never again.' And after Vietnam, I thought it would never happen again, but in the midst of all this irony you develop a certain amount of cynicism.

I have a couple of buddies I know were Vietnam. I asked one of them if he was going to go see The Wall. He said no, he couldn't go through it all again. For a lot of people, it's like that. It's just too painful.'

by Thomas Dimopoulos published in The Saratogian, June 12, 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Promise

Lloyd Henry Kent. Grenada, Miss. Casualty Date: 1/12/68, South Vietnam. Age: 21.
Gregory Ellis Cox. Pleasant Hill, Calif. Casualty Date: 1/4/68, South Vietnam. Age: 20.
Francis Paul Rybak. Syracuse, N.Y. Casualty Date: 1/5/68, South Vietnam. Age: 25.

'I made a vow that I'd never forget those guys,' said Terry Neilen, who lives in Saratoga Springs and was a member of the 1-27 Wolfhounds during the Vietnam War. 'I think it's the only vow I ever kept, that I would never forget them,' he said.

'I went to Vietnam in October 1967 during the build-up of troops. They flew me in by Saigon and then drove me down to the tunnels of Cu Chi,' Neilen remembered. 'When I got there, I was the scaredest bastard you can imagine. That's where I first met Ed. At the time, I didn't even know he was from Mechanicville.'

'We were all scared, brother,' recalled fellow Wolfhound Ed Shiffert, whose extended tour as an assistant machine gunner was from 1967 to 1969.

'I would go ahead of the line looking for booby traps,' said Shiffert, who would climb into the pitch-black underground of Cu Chi tunnels or wade through neck-high water probing for weapons that the Vietcong would hide in plastic bags for later retrieval.

'The night belonged to Charlie,' Shiffert said. 'They did their best work after dark, but when the daylight came, they got their asses out of there.'

'We didn't do too much in the dark,' Neilen agreed. 'You spent midnight just looking around when there would be nothing there but you. When the sun came up, it was the most beautiful thing you could see.'

'I was there for a year, and this is not to sound unpatriotic in any way, but the truth is that when you're there, your fighting doesn't have anything to do with waving a flag. It's about surviving and about protecting each other,' Neilen said.

Losing a buddy, he lamented, was heartbreaking.

'It's very emotional. They're there one moment and the next moment they're gone,' Neilen said. 'You get to know a person, and when they get killed, you know that they will never exist again. You grieve for their death. Then, somehow, you go on.'

After spending weeks at a time on the battlefield, memorial services for fallen comrades would be held when returning to the relative safety of the camp. He remembered many ceremonies marked by M-16s with bayonets stuck into the ground and crowned with the helmet bearing the Wolfhound logo.

'People think when they talk to a vet they're just going to hear old war stories, but that's not it - it's about how much your heart hurts for the people you lost,' Nielen said.

'Lloyd Kent was a friend of mine, a kid from Mississippi,' Nielen said. 'I remember sitting on my cot on a hot, hot day. I can remember the screen door opening and a guy walking in. He looks at me and says, 'You a friend of Kent? You better get over to the hospital 'cause he don't look so good.''

'I remember walking over to see him, saw the tubes in his arm and the smell of the place. Boy, I remember that stench. I sat there and said a prayer and I asked him, 'Hey Kent. How ya doin' man?' Later two guys came in and picked up Kent's supply locker,' Nielen said.

'Gregory Cox was another - good-looking kid from California. A happy kid, engaged to be married,' Neilen said. 'He had a card that came from back home that he had hung up. After he got killed, nobody would take that card down. And Lt. Rybak, a guy from Syracuse. The way I remember it, I ended up in the hospital for a week. He was the guy who was carrying the radio for me while I was in hospital when he was killed.'

'When they speak of the Vietnam Wall, the first thing that should be mentioned are the Gold Star Mothers. These are the mothers who lost their sons in the war. Think of the closure at The Wall. That's what the wall did for me. Not only can you talk about it, but it's encouraged,' he said.

'For me, The Wall is about trying to experience the guys you lost, a healing process, some kind of closure,' Neilen said. 'The wonderful thing is you could talk about the war. When we got back there was nobody to talk to. If you go up to a vet, don't ask them, 'Did you kill somebody?' Ask them if they lost anyone.'

Shiffert visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., about seven years ago. Like Neilen, he will be going to Malta to visit The Moving Wall.

'I was very nervous and shaking when I went there,' Shiffert said. 'I looked for names of some people I knew and started crying. When I read their name, it was like I could see the person's face.'

Lloyd Henry Kent, Panel 34E, row 37, born: 5/23/46.
Gregory Ellis Cox
, Panel 33E, row 35, born: 6/4/47.
Francis Paul Rybak, Panel 33E, line 52, born: 12/26/42.

'I made a vow that I'd never forget those guys,' Neilen said. 'I never did.'

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, June 11, 2006

Vietnam Vet recalls Barcs at Qui Nhon

SARATOGA SPRINGS - Hud Armstrong sat at his favorite Caroline Street table, where a tapestry of his drawings cover the restaurant walls, and remembered his time in Vietnam 40 years ago.

'My tour of duty wouldn't rate a movie,' he said, 'but yeah, I went. I was there. It wasn't being patriotic. I was just paying my dues.'

A military draft has been used on and off in the United States since the early 19th century and when Armstrong's turn came, he felt obligated to go.

'My grandfather went into service, my great-grandfather went, and my father was in the Philippines during World War II. He told me, 'If you get drafted, you don't run, you just go. You owe it to this country.' So I figured it was just my turn,' Armstrong said.

'That was one reason I went. The other was that if you don't go, they're going to catch up with you and hang your ass. So I went, having no idea what I would see.'

He celebrated his 21st birthday by completing basic training, then went to see the company commander who would decide his next move. It was 1966.

'He looked over my file and saw I had a background in art. I don't know what it was about my dossier, but something in there made him think, 'Hey, this guy will be really good in amphibians.' So I went for amphibian training and ended up being sent to Qui Nhon,' said Armstrong, remembering the city that sits on the Vietnam coast, south of Da Nang.

'The first thing they tell you in basic training is that you're given a gun to kill, so some of the guys think, 'Oh, we're gonna play cowboys and Indians, we're gonna be soldiers, we're gonna go kill us some gooks.' Then you get there, the door opens and they freak.'

Armstrong served with the BARCs - Barge Amphibious Re-supply Unit - whose centerpiece was an amphibious vehicle that boasted four 10-foot-high wheels for land use, a pair of propellers for water submersion and the ability to carry 60 tons of weight in its hollowed-out center.

'They were huge. You could carry a tank or 100 men inside of it,' Armstrong said.

The vehicle would meet ships in the water, then carry soldiers and supplies back to the shore, as well as make trips up into the mountains of Qui Nhon.

Armstrong remembered his year in Vietnam, cruising along the coast at night and seeing the bright lights of artillery firing in the darkness.

He remembered the eerily silent explosions that mushroomed into fireballs and the big concussive bang that would follow, showers of shrapnel raining down from the sky.

He also remembered seeing body bags being handled 'oh so delicately' by soldiers carrying the bodies of their fallen comrades.

'You'd wear your steel helmet and you'd carry an M-16. Most times went without incident, but you were always aware that you were in Vietnam,' he said.

When word spread of his artistic talents, Armstrong spent a good deal of his last few months in Vietnam painting signs to be posted outside important locations and images of celebrities like Sophia Loren and Ursula Andress that were hung inside officers' clubs.

It was a time when he first noticed the winds of change in the air.

'The last three or four months I was there was when we first started getting guys coming in and asking where the drugs were. That was in '67,' he said. 'People say the Asians did it to us with the drugs, but really we were the ones that were bringing it over.'

Things had changed for America, too.

'It wasn't until I got back that I realized how much the country turned around. I found out the rules had all changed,' he recalled. 'It was an entirely different world. There was this new music, bands like Cream and the Jefferson Airplane, and while I was away, a sexual revolution had taken place. It was more of a shock seeing how things had changed after I got back than was the shock of first going into the Army,' Armstrong said.

'I go down to the VA once a year for a check up. I've been to Washington and seen the memorial. It's mostly out of a sense of respect. I knew some guys I went to BARC training with that perished,' Armstrong said. 'With The Wall coming here, yeah, I'll go down and have a good look at it.'

The Moving Wall is on display 24 hours a day through 11 a.m. Monday at Shenantaha Creek Park in Malta.

by Thomas Dimopoulos
published in The Saratogian, June 11, 2006