By Michael Fitzpatrick
Some came wearing leather vests and bandanas, with long, graying hair pulled back in ponytails and scruffy facial hair. Others came freshly shaven and wore pressed dress military uniforms. Still others came in just casual dress.
And while this group of men, many of whom are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s, may have been disparate when it came to their sartorial selection, they all shared one thing in common: They served in Vietnam.
The group as a whole came together at North Ridgeville VFW Post 9871 on March 30 to honor each other for their service and recognize the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War.
Those who served were given medals and thanked for their service during a brief ceremony at the post, which followed up with a simple lunch of cold-cut sandwiches, salad and cookies.
The thanks the Vietnam vets received was something an overwhelming majority of them were denied when they initially returned stateside after their tours of duty in a military operation that so many of their countrymen were against.
“We went to war. We fought. Some of us bled and some of us died,” Post 9871 Cmdr. Jim Hordinski told the group in a short address before the recognition ceremony. “When we came home we were spit on. We were treated worse than dirt. Finally, after 50 years, we are getting our own day.”
Hordinski provided the grim numbers as part of short speech: More than 58,000 U.S. service men and women were killed in action and more than 1,600 to this day are still unaccounted for. He also made note that many veterans of the war still battle health problems related to post-traumatic stress disorder and exposure to the chemical Agent Orange.
Attached to the 101st Airborne Division, Hordinski served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. More and more organizations are now starting to honor Vietnam vets for their service, he said, using as an example last year’s VFW national convention. at which the organization honored all the Vietnam veterans with a “big welcome home party.”
“That’s what they deserve,” Hordinski said. “They deserved to come home to a welcome instead of what they came home to at the time.”
Elyria resident Gary Wilder served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 1st Logistical Command and attended the March 30 ceremony.
“It’s nice that they honor us. It’s something we didn’t get when we came home,” Wilder said of the ceremony.
The day lent itself to the swapping of war stories, and Wilder did not hesitate in opening up about his experiences in Vietnam.
Youthful indiscretion ultimately punched his ticket overseas, he said. While growing up on Cleveland’s West Side he found himself in trouble with the law and a judge told him it was either join the military, or go to jail.
In Vietnam his unit would board helicopters and run search and rescue missions for U.S. aircraft that had been downed by enemy fire.
Although he’s been stateside for decades, he said he still sleeps with a loaded handgun under his pillow and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In ‘Nam your weapon was your bed partner,” Wilder recalled. “That weapon was with you 24/7. You’d shower with it.”
His wife has told him repeatedly to try to put the war in the past, but Wilder insists that’s impossible.
“I tell her the war isn’t going to end for me until I’m buried in the ground,” he said.
Wilder, who would go on to work as a firefighter and first responder at what is now NASA Glenn Research Center, can vividly recall the day he arrived at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport after his time in Vietnam.
“I had a combat .357 Magnum in an AWOL bag. My dad was with me and there were a bunch of protesters out. They called me ‘baby killer’ and somebody threw a can at me that nearly hit me. I pulled the gun out and my dad took the gun away. I was about to shoot somebody,” Wilder said.
“There was a bigger war over here than there was over there,” Wilder said of the war protests he arrived home to.
And while some of his memories of the era are vivid, others he struggles to recall, such as trying to recall where he was stationed in Vietnam.
“It begins with at T,” he said.
Quickly his friend and fellow Vietnam vet Richard Corbin stepped in to explain Wilder’s lapse in memory.
“We’ve both had strokes, I’ve had five and he’s had four. We’ve got brain damage,” said Corbin, who served in the 101st Airborne. Corbin shared a story about his unit being overrun by Viet Cong during a surprise attack. He recalled how dark it could be in the jungle and nearly shooting two of his fellow soldiers during the attack. He said something told him to not shoot.
Even landing a job after serving in Vietnam was a challenge, Wilder said, because many potential employers considered the vets to be “deranged.”
Wilder currently serves as the president of the U.S. Veterans and Patriots Inc. The organization provides support services for all veterans and their families. Corbin serves as the vice president of the organization.
The two both recalled that enemy fire was not the only threat U.S. service members faced in the jungles of Vietnam. Poisonous snakes and other deadly critters could also do one in.
“They had a snake over there, we called it the ‘one-two snake.’ It was about as big as a pencil, 14 inches long. It would bite you and keep on going. If you didn’t have anti-venom right there for you, that’s why they called it the one-two: one, it bites you, and two, you were dead,” Wilder said.
Corbin said he never remembers being scared during his time in Vietnam despite all the horrible memories he carries around in his head.
“I guess I had too much fear in me to be scared,” he said.