A small group of Vietnam War veterans, battle buddies and supporters gathered at the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Memorial last month to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.
The solemn ceremony on March 29 was a poignant reminder of the challenges and sacrifices made by these veterans in service to their country.
Among the veterans were Steve Fisher, Larry Littrell, Rick Gano, Pat Schauer and Mike Zagyva. Each of them shared their personal experiences of serving in Vietnam, which included stories of bravery, loss, and sacrifice.
The veterans stood in silence at the memorial, paying tribute to those who never made it home, before taking pictures to commemorate the moment.
Afterward, they walked next door to Burgerville, where staff had reserved and decorated several tables in their honor, to enjoy a meal, share stories and reminisce about their time in Vietnam.
After much cajoling, Pat Schauer, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam from November 1970 to April 1972, finally agreed to tell about the night he investigated a suspicious noise outside the perimeter of the base, only to find himself face to face with a thousand-pound water buffalo.
He used some of the post’s explosive mortars to scare the beast off, which worked — but his supervisors didn’t find it amusing.
“They didn’t laugh,” he said with a chuckle. “You weren’t supposed to do that without permission. They tried to kick me out but couldn’t get rid of me. I was no longer their favorite boy, though.”
Rick Gano, an Air Force military policeman who guarded bases in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968, had his own run-ins with local wildlife.
“I was on duty one night and felt something on my left,” he recalled. “I glance over and it was the biggest rat I’d ever seen. They’ve got rats the size of cats over there. I drop-kicked that son of a gun so hard. I’d never kicked anything so hard in my life.”
The vets also shared more poignant stories and memories. Larry Littrell, who served as a medic on an armored personnel carrier in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, recalled his fallen friend, Calvin William “Bill” Kolb, of Hubbard, whom he credits with saving his life.
On March 14, 1970, their troop was on patrol on Binh Duong Province in South Vietnam. Littrell was walking with Kolb and another soldier, when Kolb noticed that they were bunched too close together and ordered them to keep their distance.
“We were supposed to have 15 feet between us, so he told us to stop and back up,” he remembered. “He turned around and took two steps and stepped on a mine. If he hadn’t stopped us, it would have gotten all three of us.”
Kolb was laid to rest at Willamette National Cemetery. Larry makes sure the site and headstone stay well-tended and visits often.
“On Veterans Day, I take a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon up there, pour a little on his headstone and just sit and talk for a while,” he shared.
Asked what sorts of things he talks about, his answer is simple: “It’s mainly just, ‘Thanks for saving my life.’”
Several of the veterans also spoke of the pain and trauma of returning from Vietnam, only to be met by an ungrateful and even hostile American populace, deeply divided over the unpopular war.
Littrell recalled how fellow GIs warned him to change out of his Army khakis before getting off the plane in Oakland, California, because of the way returning soldiers were being abused by protesters at the airport. But he was having none of that.
“I said, ‘No way. I’m wearing them,’” he remembered. “And nobody said a word to me. I just gave them a look and I think that shut them up.”
Irene Breshears, of the Canby and Aurora Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6057 Auxiliary, helped organize the 50th-anniversary event. She said it’s important to remember the Vietnam-era generation, not only their wartime service but also the ways they served their fellow veterans and communities in the decades they followed.
“They all gave back in their own, quiet ways but in significant ways,” Breshears said. “They’re unsung heroes.”
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