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.
Vietnam Veterans Lou Nudi and Ray Amelio traveled to Vietnam as part of a 14-day tour sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Inc. to mark the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive.
In The History Channel’s “Unsung Heroes: The Battle of Khe Sanh,” Vietnam is described as a teenager’s war: “Its soldier stepped straight out of a childhood played in the golden age that was America in the early 1960s.”
That was true for Oakland resident Terry Michel, who was just 18 when he enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1965. A year later he was stationed near Bien Hoa Air Base, about 16 miles from Saigon. He served two tours.
But when he returned home, he wasn’t allowed to join the VFW without a sponsor.
Ray Amelio belongs to The Veterans Breakfast Club, which along with the VVI Breakfast Club offers those who served in Vietnam a place to gather.
“When I told the commander that I didn’t know any of the members, he just shrugged his shoulders,” he says. “The truth is, they didn’t want us coming in, maybe because we didn’t want our war like they wanted theirs.”
Since the first wave of veterans began coming back from Iraq, the phrase “Thank you for your service” has become ubiquitous. In a piece he wrote for Mother Jones magazine in 2014, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning called the barrage of thank yous the “endless theme of the post-9/11 era.” Perhaps we’ve over-compensated for the fact that Vietnam veterans waited decades to hear someone utter that phrase, but Fanning brings up another point that no one seems to talk about: The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion weren’t exactly “eager to claim the country’s defeated veterans of a disastrous war as their own.”
George Coppola, who grew up in the Hill District and lives in Collier Township now, was 18 in 1967 when he shipped out to Vietnam to serve on the Coast Guard Cutter Campbell. What surprised him when he came home was not that most of his friends wouldn’t talk to him — “They were against the war,” he says — but that he was rebuffed by the VFW, where he was told, “We don’t want your kind here.” “Now when people see me wearing my Vietnam Veterans cap, they thank me for my service or welcome me home. It’s like we’ve done a complete 180.”
Navy veteran Chuck Giovannitti, who grew up in Brookline and lives in Whitehall, remembers that when he came back from Vietnam in 1968, “no one wanted to talk about what you did.” Then in 2005, Giovannitti got his belated “thanks for your service” from a young man he met on an elevator at a hotel in St. Louis, where he was attending a reunion of crew members who had served on the USS William B. Pratt. “He was the first person who ever said that to me.”
Etched in white against the reflective black granite surface of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., are the names of more than 58,000 servicemen and women killed or missing in action. Unlike other memorials scattered throughout Washington, The Wall invites participation. It’s a visceral experience; the largest panels begin well below ground level, requiring those who visit to negotiate the gradually sloping terrain as if entering a grave.
On Veteran’s Day in November 2017, members of Vietnam Veterans Inc. (vietnamveteransinc.com) made the trip from Pittsburgh to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The mood was noticeably different than it was 34 years ago when the organization made the same trip for the dedication of the bronze statue of three soldiers by sculptor Frederick Hart, commissioned to stand near The Wall.
The National Mall was awash in a sea of green that day in 1984 as men milled about in jungle fatigues, camouflage or bits and pieces of uniforms saved for reasons known only to themselves. There were bikers sporting ponytails and tattoos. One group of vets wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Southeast Asia War Games, Class of ’68.”
Some displayed medals they had once been ashamed to wear.
One veteran compared being in Vietnam to being raped. “You know how the rape victim tends to suppress the incident [thinking] people regard her as if she’s dirty or unclean?” he said. “That’s how Vietnam vets have felt for years.”
That sentiment rang true back then when a generation soured on patriotism wore the decade since Vietnam like a thin layer of scar tissue over images of body counts and body bags, of Mai Lai and Tet, and of Kent State, the tragic denouement of the anti-war movement.
This past November, however, there was reserved seating for the veterans, whom former Secretary of Defense and Vietnam veteran Chuck Hagel called the senior statesmen of the veteran’s community.
Hagel acknowledged that recognition came too late for many Vietnam veterans. “But look around you,” he told the assembled crowd. “It’s here today.”
Maya Lin, the architect who designed The Wall when she was just 21, was also on the program that afternoon. “My impulse was to cut open the earth and polish the earth’s open sides,” she said.
She recalled an encounter with an angry Vietnam veteran at The Wall the night before it was dedicated. When he screamed at her, she knew that The Wall was starting to work, allowing him to experience rage, pain and grief. “The Wall is not like other memorials,” she explained. “You meet here to feel something deeply.”
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.