Thank you for your service

By on May 22, 2019

Eleven vets served on a panel for Warwick High School’s sixth Vietnam Veterans of America event

Vietnam War veteran Bob Chavous was deeply touched when Warwick High School freshman George Hartman reached out to shake his hand.

“Thank you for your service,” said the teen, as Chavous stood with his service dog Alf, surrounded by young people who were not yet born when Americans fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975.

Vietnam Veterans Ron Horn, Jeff Hornberger, and Doug Kelly at Warwick High School’s sixth Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1008 program.

For Chavous, they were words he had longed to hear when he returned from Vietnam as a young man in 1969, after receiving a Silver Star medal and Purple Heart for his valor. Back then, buses were surrounded by war protesters and those who served were not greeted with words of thanks.

“It was an unpopular war,” admitted Chavous. “But we answered the call and we served our country. It means the world to me to hear these young people say thank you.”

Chavous was one of 11 Vietnam War veterans to serve on a panel for Warwick High School’s sixth Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1008 program on May 14. The local chapter has 138 members. The program was arranged by Warwick High School social studies teacher Sherry Ruggiero to give students an opportunity to meet some of the servicemen who fought in the Vietnam War during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Students interact with Vietnam War veterans who served on a panel for Warwick High School’s sixth Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1008 program on May 14.

The Vietnam War was an undeclared war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that lasted nearly 20 years from November 1, 1955 until the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Its intent was to fight against communism, but as the war raged on its purpose became more uncertain. Americans witnessed a rising death toll count on the evening news. Protesters rallied against the war.

Freshman Solomon Kakule and Douglas Kelly.

Most of the panelists at Tuesday’s program had been drafted into the war. Many were young, some still teens at the time. They got their draft notices and reported for duty, unsure of what to expect when they arrived in the jungles of Vietnam.

“There were some rich kids, who didn’t have to go. And there were draft dodgers. The rest of us, we went,” said Marine Louis Ferganis, who was wounded twice.

Ed Bookman remembers getting his draft notice with the words “Greetings!” from the President of the United States. He was an only child and his mother was so upset when he had to leave, she couldn’t bear to go with him when it was time to report.

“I knew nothing of Vietnam. I left a world where my main interests were dating girls and driving cars.”

In Vietnam, the soldiers discovered rainy weather that lasted for months in the monsoon season. They faced fire ants, scorpions and all sorts of insects and animals. And they faced death.

“They told us not to make friends, but we did,” said Bookman. “You could be talking to someone in the morning and by lunchtime, they were dead.”

The death toll of the Vietnam War was staggering. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. stands as a testament to that loss, with the names of more than 58,000 who made the ultimate sacrifice.

John Hoober, Education Committee chairman of the VVA Chapter 1008 in Lancaster, offered a few more sad statistics. He told the students that 997 service persons died on their very first day in Vietnam. There were 1,447 who died on the day they were about to return home after serving in Vietnam. The youngest died just two weeks after his 15th birthday. The oldest was a 62-year-old petty officer.

Ed Bookman top; Louis Ferganis, middle, and Warren Kimmel, above, at Warwick High School’s sixth Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1008 program

 

“I can remember thinking this is a nightmare and someday I will wake up,” recalled Rich Mellot who served in the Army in Vietnam.

Even after they returned home, veterans had to deal with injuries, the trauma of PTSD, and the long-term effects of the deadly herbicide known as Agent Orange.

For Vietnam veteran Alberto Ros, the nurses who served in Vietnam were heroes and angels. There were more than 7,800 women who served in Vietnam. Most were nurses.

“They took care of us. They would patch them up so they could go back to battle, go home, or go home for good,” said Ros, remembering China Beach and the white nurses’ uniforms stained in blood.

Two Warwick High School students were among those who died in Vietnam. Gerald Lloyd Habecker and Jay Dennis Webster Jr., whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., were honored at Warwick’s program on Tuesday.

A long-time member of the VVA Chapter 1008 was also remembered. Command Master Chief Bobby Ruble, U.S. Navy, had been a panelist at several of the Warwick High School presentations. Ruble died unexpectedly late last year. A plaque with a picture of Ruble in full uniform was presented, along with brief slide show about Ruble.

As Hoober recalled, Ruble often told students that one of the most striking changes he witnessed when he returned home from Vietnam was the change in women’s hemlines. When he left, women wore dresses to their knees or mid-calf. By the time he returned, thigh-high mini-skirts were all the rage.

The students gave Ruble a traditional military farewell when they called out the words, “Welcome Home, Bobby.”

Laura Knowles is a freelance feature writer and regular contributor to the pages of the Record Express. She welcomes feedback and story tips at lknowles21@gmail.com. 

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