Vietnam Vets – The Warriors No One Wanted to Thank
When veterans returned from Vietnam, they didn't often hear the phrase “Thank you for your service.” But now, Pittsburgh veterans think people are learning to separate the war from the warrior.
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Ray Amelio tours the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City during his trip to Vietnam in March.
John Weinheimer Jr. insists he didn’t want a parade when he came home; he just wanted someone to thank him for doing his duty. When that didn’t happen, he tried to put the war behind him, becoming a workaholic and ignoring signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder until he got help six or seven years ago.
At first, he was uncomfortable when people began thanking him for his service, it brought up a lot of emotions. “It’s like opening Pandora’s box and not knowing what’s going to come out,” he says. A Marine who survived the Tet Offensive, Weinheimer had never been to The Wall until last November, when another member of the VVI Breakfast Club, which meets every Thursday at Gianna Via’s Restaurant and Bar in The Shoppes at Caste Village in Brentwood, convinced him to come along. “Every one of our members was fighting back tears because of the outpouring of feeling,” says Weinheimer, who is touched by the newfound respect being paid to veterans.
Since the U.S. began normalizing relations with Vietnam in 1995, thousands of veterans have returned to Southeast Asia to make sense of a war that was fraught with controversy. In March, the VVI sponsored a 14-day tour of Vietnam to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
Seven local veterans, including Ray Amelio, a medic who served with the U.S. Marine Corps, made the trip. Amelio was wounded for the first time in 1968 during the 77-day Siege at Khe Sanh, one of the war’s longest and bloodiest battles, and it was difficult to reconcile the combat area he left 50 years ago with the acres of verdant fields that have become a center for Arabica coffee cultivation and production today. Amelio, who belongs to The Veterans Breakfast Club, also visited a war-themed museum at the Khe Sanh Combat Base where he was struck, though not surprised, by the Communist propaganda. “After all, they won, so they’re going to tell the story from their point of view,” he says.
So they could experience the anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial together, nearly 50 members of VVI, many with wives or other family members, took the train from Pittsburgh the day before. Late on Friday night, a group of them met at The Wall to participate in The Reading of the Names, a sobering event that took place from 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7, until midnight on Friday, Nov. 10. Over those four days, volunteers read one page of 30 names in 2-minute intervals until each name on those granite panels had been read aloud.
Members of Vietnam Veterans Inc. from Pittsburgh, including President Robert Burke (sunglasses) reserved 90 seats for the Veteran’s Day ceremony in Washington, D.C. | photo by Robin Houck
Titusville native Dave Hathaway, who served in the Air Force and was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon from 1969 to 1970, walked the length of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, remembering the thousands of soldiers killed in action whose caskets — as many as 240 a day — he helped load onto planes. “Sometimes I look at those names on The Wall and wonder which ones I shipped back home.”
From Aug. 9-12, The Wall That Heals, a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is coming to McKeesport, which lost 23 young men in Vietnam between 1965-1971.
Robert Fleming narrowly avoided becoming one of those names on The Wall. A paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne from 1969 to 1970, Fleming was based outside Saigon near Bien Hoa. He became a platoon radioman because he believed it would keep him better informed than the average grunt.
Fleming’s battalion, which had been in the field near Dak To, deep in the Central Highlands, from June through November 1967, discovered an abandoned enemy base camp on Friday, Nov. 17, and was dispatched to the south slope of what was called Hill 875. On a bright and beautiful Sunday morning, Battalion Chaplain Major Charles J. Watters, a 42-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey, said Mass, then spent the rest of the afternoon giving comfort and aid to the wounded and last rites to the dying. By the end of the day, Watters would be dead and Fleming badly wounded in what was the worst case of friendly fire during the war.
Robert Fleming recovering from his wounds in Vietnam | photo courtesy Robert Fleming
Fleming describes the incident that nearly killed him as if it happened yesterday. “It was 11:17 a.m. when I got hit by shrapnel,” says Fleming, who was struck in the buttocks. Then at 6:58 p.m. after a day of heavy fighting with the North Vietnamese Army, which had outnumbered and surrounded them, a U.S. Marine Corps F4 Phantom aircraft dropped a 500-pound bomb in the middle of the perimeter. Watters, who was standing next to Fleming when the bomb exploded, was simply gone, identified only by his collar, which had miraculously survived. Watters would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery.
When Fleming came to, he was deaf except for a persistent high-pitched squeal — “My eardrums had ruptured,” he explains — and the place was on fire. Gasping for air, he sucked in hot ash and debris, burning his mouth, throat and lungs. With most of the officers, medics and other essential personnel dead, those who were left “tried to harden the perimeter, but it was one scary night,” says Fleming, who spent four days without food, water or medical care. He can recall the smell of his wound, which had become gangrenous, mingling with the odor of the dead and dying. “A few choppers had gotten in, but I knew I wouldn’t get on one [quickly] because I wasn’t one of the seriously wounded, who were missing an arm or a leg,” says Fleming. Finally, he was transported to Pleiku; on Thanksgiving morning Fleming was in surgery in Qui Nhon.
For Fleming, who grew up and still lives in Hazelwood where he carried mail for years, the nightmares have never completely abated. He held one dying soldier as he bled out and saw things no one should have to see. The body of a dead soldier hanging upside down by one ankle in a tree. Body parts scattered everywhere.
Still, Fleming would be the last person on earth to describe himself as a hero. “I’m a survivor,” he says. “I went over and did what I was supposed to do. When I went home in June, it was done.”
Ray Amelio arriving in Halong Bay
It’s estimated that about 390 Vietnam veterans are dying every day, some from debilitating health problems due to Agent Orange exposure. So four years ago, Coppola joined forces with two other area vets and three civilians to start a program called “No Veteran Dies Alone.” The idea was to have local hospitals notify someone in the group when a Vietnam veteran with no friends or family to visit had less than 72 hours to live.
“One of us always answered the call,” says Coppola. A couple of years ago on New Year’s Eve, the phone rang while Coppola and his wife were watching the festivities on television and Coppola was called to a dying veteran’s bedside. “He asked if I thought he’d make it to see the New Year.” Coppola assured him that he would and turned his hospital bed to face the window, which afforded a dramatic view of Downtown Pittsburgh. “I told him that we’d watch the fireworks together at midnight,” says Coppola, who made good on his promise. The veteran died, with Coppola holding his hand, 10 minutes later.
Terry Michel thinks that the knowledge we’ve acquired in the past 50 years has made it easier for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the “thank you for your service” fatigue that has set in for some of them. “While Vietnam was a terrible war, Iraq was even worse,” he says, “but I think that after all these years we’ve learned to separate the war from the warrior.”
Quick Facts about the Wall
>The Wall is composed of black granite from Bangalore, India.
>There are eight women listed on The Wall.
>There are 16 chaplains listed on The Wall.
>The average age of service members on The Wall is 22 years, nine months.
>The youngest service member listed on the Wall is Dan Bullock, who was 15 years old when he was killed in Vietnam.
>Service members who died in 1968 — the deadliest year of the war — cover 72 of the 140 panels on The Wall.
>More than 400,000 personal items, including photos, handwritten notes, teddy bears, canteens and medals, have been left at The Wall since it was dedicated in 1982.