David Watkins had never spoken of it before in public.
The emotional scars he carried from the Vietnam War were buried deep for years as memories he only shared with his wife and fellow veterans.
Yet when the call came, he agreed to tell his story as one of 50 veterans profiled over the past year in the Voices of Service series published in The Sentinel newspaper. The series will end next Saturday, Nov. 12.
“It was a healing experience,” said Watkins recalling his interview with Jeffrey Hawks, education director of the Army Heritage Center Foundation.
Hawks was the chief content writer for the foundation, which shared the responsibility of writing the stories with The Sentinel staff. While Hawks focused on Army veterans, the newspaper sought out the first-hand accounts of veterans from the other service branches.
“It was very emotional,” Watkins said. “But I’ve learned over the last 15 years the more I talk about it, the easier it is for me to lay it down … and yet it is so hard to talk about it.
“I did not ask to be in Vietnam,” he added. “But I had a grandfather who served during World War I. I had a father who served in World War II. I had uncles who served in Korea. What am I going to say? ‘No, I’m not going to go.’ I love my country and I would go again for my country.”
Watkins was among the Vietnam veterans honored Wednesday during a reception at the Carlisle Regional Medical Center, which had sponsored the Voices of Service series with the newspaper and the foundation.
Each veteran was given a commemorative pin in salute of the 50th anniversary of the war that defined a generation. It was a conflict ever present on TV news shows that Sentinel publisher Gary Adkisson used to watch growing up as the son of a Baptist minister.
“I did not serve in Vietnam,” he told the veterans Wednesday. “But my life was impacted at different stages by stories of service and by people who gave the ultimate for our country.”
Adkisson recalled a memory from when he was a 9-year-old boy living in California. His father had been summoned to the home of a family friend where Adkisson played with the other children outside.
Years later Adkisson learned his purpose for being there that day was to distract the other children while the adults grappled with the emotion of loss. The family had just been told their son had died in Vietnam.
Fast forward to a few weeks after Adkisson had graduated from high school in Jackson, Missouri. It was June 16, 1975 – his 18th birthday – and Adkisson felt duty bound to report to the courthouse in nearby Cape Girardeau. He admits he was not as well informed.
“I was nervous. I was sweaty. My heart was pounding,” Adkisson recalled. “This was the big moment when I had to register for the draft. When I finally found the office where I needed to go, the lady told me ‘Honey, the draft ended almost two years ago.’ I was relieved. I ran out of the place and hopped in my car.
“We hear how World War II veterans are referred to as the Greatest Generation,” Adkisson said during an interview earlier in the day. “My father-in-law was one of them. I have the greatest respect for those people, but I think we have under-valued what other service people have done. The guys who served in Vietnam were no less noble, valiant or heroic.”
Seated among the honored veterans was Tom Foor who was in the Army artillery in Vietnam from December 1968 to December 1969. Though it was emotionally draining for him to share his memories, he thought the series was a good idea.
“Everyone needs to tell their story and point out the problems that we had being over there,” Foor said. “It was not all guts and glory. It was not all worth it. Too many guys lost their lives and look at what has happened since then, but I would not trade the memories for a million dollars. I served with a lot of good men.”
Gregory Pace of South Middleton Township was a Navy corpsman assigned to render medical aid to Marines in the field. “I thought the series was done very well,” Pace said. “I read all the articles every Saturday. It’s about time Vietnam veterans get recognized for what they did. It seems that they were ignored in that time in history. With all the demonstrations going on in the U.S., it just sort of got pushed aside.”
Periodically over the course of three years, Air Force veteran Don Bruce flew aerial refueling missions in a KC-135 tanker plane in support of fighter missions over Vietnam.
“The stories gave the public a better perspective of the Vietnam experience,” Bruce said Wednesday. “Back then, nobody cared so much for the veterans. You were almost reluctant to wear your uniform in public places. But people have come to appreciate that it was not the military, it was the civilian leadership that was mishandling the war.”
The veterans Jeffrey Hawks interviewed included an Army nurse, intelligence specialists, military advisers and helicopter pilots. Their experiences ranged from the beginning of the war to the middle stage, when US forces were ramping up, to the end.
The list of veterans profiled in the series included draftees, career military and those who enlisted to carry on a family tradition of service or because they had surrendered to the inevitable.
While every story was unique, Hawks and The Sentinel staff encountered several overarching themes. There was a general pride in service to country. There was a dedication to the job at hand. There was the feeling that while not everyone served in combat, everyone was pulling together to do their part.
“All service is honorable,” Hawks said. “Everybody made their contribution. It was an honor and privilege to meet so many veterans and to help them share their stories. The sheer number of those not willing or able to share really demonstrates that the story of Vietnam is still largely untold.”
David Steitz also spoke during the reception as the chief executive officer of the Carlisle Regional Medical Center. When he was approached by The Sentinel to sponsor the series, he thought it was a great idea.
“We know how important the military is to this community,” Steitz said. “We want to keep that in the forefront of everybody and to celebrate all of our veterans here in the Cumberland County area.”