A few months ago I received the Minnesota Humanity Center “2017 Veteran’s Voices Award.” The following week I was interviewed by our local television station–I guess I forgot to post it on my blog.
September 11, 2017, my wife, Patti, and several family members attended the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award ceremony at University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota Humanities Center started the program in 2013 to recognize Minnesota Veterans who quietly work with the underserved members of our state. I was deeply honored to be selected.
The evening had an air of celebration yet the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11-2001 hung like a pall over the ceremonies. After the White Earth Veterans Association Honor Guard posted colors, Bemidji’s own, Joe Vene, sang the National Anthem. After the Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for those lost on 9/11.
During that moment, as the White Earth Honor Guard marched slowly away, their dance bells rang mournfully, like chimes in the night calling the lost. As I accepted my award, I thought about what one of my old riverboat crewmates wrote to me a few weeks earlier when I questioned why we are still here after so many others of our Vietnam Brothers had been lost.
Brian wrote, “You and I are still here because it’s not our time yet. Someone watches over us, just the way they did when Tango 7 and Tango 11 got switched on the Cua Viet at Dong Ha. The 18th has become a day for me to remember and reflect. The Travelling Wall was in my area over the July 4 weekend, I made a point of going there to honor the men we lost those days.”
I too, remember the Marine Corps and Navy Memorial Services held on the sandy banks of the Cua Viet River and the Army/Navy Memorial Services held on a pontoon barge in the Mekong River. Fifty years later the faces blur but like chimes in the night, they echo in my memory.
In helping others, I honor the memory of those who never had a chance to grow old. Perhaps Brian is right. Our work isn’t finished yet.
This past week I traveled 1,593 miles and 51 years back in time.
Professor Tom Murphy, Indiana University, South Bend, initiated my trip when he asked if I would like to speak to students in his history classes that use Muddy Jungle Rivers—my visit included an evening public reading. I’m often surprised at the wide-ranging discussions during reading conversations—from the antiwar protestors to troops in the field to the political scene. One young lady, questioning the morality of the Vietnam War, attempted to equate perceived police brutality to troop behavior in Vietnam—there really is not a reasonable answer for such a question. Our national collective Vietnam Experience continues to haunt us—including our grandchildren.
As we drift into the autumn of our years it’s common to reminisce about the past. The past week while in Indiana I had the opportunity to reconnect with two men I served with during our 1966 deployment to Vietnam. We’re old men now, but sitting near the bonfire, I closed my eyes and listened, and once again I saw three seventeen-year-old sailors joking on the deck of the USS Rogers. We had a wonderful few days together.
As much as I treasure my visit with them, it feels good to be home.
I am deeply honored that New York Times Bestselling Author, Laura Schroff, included a story about my friend, Angie, and her family, and my wife, Patti, and me. It truly is a humbling experience to be one of thirty stories selected out of the thousands Laura must have read. I encourage you to take a look at Angels on Earth–not for our story, but to explore the profound lessons Laura shares–lessons of how we can help others.
Laura, thank you for the signed copies of Angels on Earth that you sent to Angie and me. I think there is a universal truth that you explore in your earlier book, An Invisible Thread: a truth that connects many millions of people, but in today’s harried world the connections are too often ignored. After my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers was published, I reconnected with many Vietnam Veteran friends. Our thread had been stretched across fifty years of silence. Deland, another Vietnam Veteran friend, was the thread that connected Angie and me. When Angie read about her late husband in “The Six Cups Of Coffee” tears trickled down her smiling cheeks, happy that Deland is remembered. Angie was the last person to live in that dilapidated house in the story; the city condemned it. Today, several years later, it’s a small grassy play area across from the homeless shelter. Good Luck with your book release today. I hope to see you in Minnesota one day.
About six months after my friend, Deland, died in 1999, his widow and her family came to our farm, homeless and hungry. Angie is a proud lady and offered to repay our help. I told her that anything we shared with her was a gift. So began a journey that continues today.
Deland and I first met in a therapy group. We had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a result of combat in Vietnam. Too often, PTSD sufferers go through life battling depression, reliving traumas, and feeling they are victims. There is another way for some.
Posttraumatic growth is a relatively new concept. UNC Charlotte, Dept of Psychology, describes it this way, “It [posttraumatic growth] is positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.” When Angie and her family arrived at our farm 17 years ago, she unwittingly became an instrument of healing for me.
Today, when I do readings and talks about my Vietnam memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, I discuss PTSD and how my journey with Angie and her family has been rewarding.
I am deeply honored to have Laura Schroff include Angie’s story, “Six cups of Coffee” in Angels on Earth.
Miigwech [thank you], Angie and Laura.
These recent protests against the Trump rally and the media’s obsession comparing it to the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests have triggered memories of my 1968 confrontation with the anti-war protestors. While serving with the Brown Water Navy in Vietnam I was wounded in an ambush and medevac’d home.
On August 29, 1968, our C-141 Starlifter landed at Glenview Naval Air Station. We were transferred from the Starlifter to hospital buses for transport to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. When the buses pulled off the base we were surrounded and attacked by the protestors. For several decades I was troubled by why protestors would attack bus loads of wounded troops traveling.
(This Starlifter picture is from Beverly Dawson’s book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).)
This Vietnam magazine article I wrote several years ago details the event. http://www.wendellaffield.com/uncategorized/22-august-2007-revisiting-the-past
Sergeant First Class Patrick Thomas Jr
Two years ago I reconnected with a group of men I served with in Vietnam. I mentioned a soldier I’ve thought about each day since August 18, 1968, when he performed an act of heroism during an ambush and was severely wounded. At that 2013 reunion I learned his name and began searching for him. To learn more, read a few of my earlier blog posts.
I’ve been invited to participate in a 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War in Rockford, IL, this Veteran’s Day weekend. One of the men who invited me suggested we honor SSgt Thomas.
This November Midway Village Museum is partnering with local Vietnam veterans and the Department of Defense to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War and the role of local soldiers and families in that conflict.
Friday is going to be open to the Rockford Public schools for students and teachers to come and meet veterans, visit display as well as talk to veterans about the war.
On Saturday November 14 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. local veterans will share displays of photographs and artifacts and be available to talk with visitors about their experiences. Displays will include all branches of the military, Medical MASH units, POWS, the use of helicopters in combat, scrapbooks from a Gold Star Mother, and the Purple Heart Society. Cost is $7 adults, $5 ages 3-17. Members are FREE.
Other features of the day include:
A presentation at 12:30 by students of the Harlem High School’s Harlem Vet Project. Students have interviewed Vietnam veterans and will present several minutes each of documentaries based on the experiences of those veterans. Longer documentaries are under development. At 2 p.m. author and Vietnam Veteran Wendell Affield will present a talk on his memoir Muddy Jungle Rivers. Affield was part of the Army’s Mobile Riverine Force in 1968.
On Sunday November 15 join the Museum for a Public Forum on the Vietnam War from 2-4 p.m. Dr. John Votaw, Emeritus Director of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois will act as Moderator. Panelists include Bronze Star recipient Mary Nichols, American Legion Post Commander and 26 year Army Veteran Dave Davis, Veteran turned Peace Activist Stanley Campbell, and former Marine and Purple Heart recipient Don Allen. Panelists will address how Veterans were treated when they returned home, what the community feelings about the war were, and the way their own feelings about the war have changed over the years. There will be an opportunity for audience questions as well.
I believe most of us carry ghosts we hold close. I received the phone call about Sgt Thomas while shopping for my wife’s valentine gift. It was déjà vu—the same sense of disconnect I felt when I learned my brother had been killed. Sergeant Thomas has been in my thoughts each day for more than forty years. And each day I’ve thought about what I would say if I met him.
I never mentioned Sgt Thomas to anyone because for many years I rarely mentioned my Vietnam experience and besides, I didn’t know his name. In retrospect, I think it was his quiet sense of confidence that impressed me. I’m sure he never noticed me.
I first saw him the summer of 1968. He was an army noncommissioned officer (NCO) and I was navy—cox’n of our armor troop carrier river boat. He and his platoon rode our boat several times when we went out on operations.
During an ambush on August 18, 1968, Sgt Thomas came topside and manned a machine gun that had been abandoned. Moments later his chest took the full brunt of a rocket propelled grenade blast when it burned through the armor of the gun turret he was in. I remember how his flak jacket—protective vest—was shredded. For many years I thought he had been killed. At a Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in 2013 I learned the sergeant’s last name—Thomas.
In 2013, after I learned his name, I wrote in my blog, “I wonder if Sergeant Thomas was the senior man on board ATC 112-11 on August 18. I believe in the chaos of the day his act of heroism went unnoticed and unrecorded. I would very much like to identify the sergeant. If he did not survive his wounds, his family deserves to know of his actions. If he did survive, and is still alive, I would very much like to meet him.”
Within a few weeks of posting that message I began receiving clues to his identity. One man sent me a photo of Sergeant Thomas.
About six months ago Sgt Thomas’ company commander, Captain Pease, called me. He had read about my search for Thomas. On Feb 11, 2015, the captain called again. He had discovered orders awarding Combat Infantryman Badges (CIB) with Thomas’ name listed on it. I got the full name, rank, service number, social security number. I forwarded that information to friends who have been active in the search and less than twenty-four hours later I received my answer. Sergeant First Class Patrick Thomas Jr is buried in Durham, North Carolina.
I’ve always known that if I learned the sergeant’s identity I would initiate the process of having an award such as the Silver Star awarded to him if he hadn’t received one. The ambush is well documented: An excerpt from our River Assault Division officer’s Navy Cross citation for that ambush reads,
“James Rad Nelson (570611), Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, for extraordinary heroism on 18 August 1968 while engaged in riverine assault operations against communist aggressor forces in the Republic of Vietnam. As Commander River Assault Division 112, Task Force 117 (TF-117), consisting of twelve river assault craft, Lieutenant Nelson conducted operations along the Hai Muoi Tarn Canal in Dinh Tuong Province. Shortly after noon, the assault boat column was attacked by what was later estimated to be a Viet Cong battalion.”
So now the award must be posthumous. His family deserves to know of his heroism.
I recently reconnected with Beverly Dawson, the lady I met at Glenview History Center in 2007. This Starlifter picture is from her book, Images of America, Glenview Naval Air Station. (Page 108).
Note the bus with the red cross backed up to the back of the medevac aircraft; that’s what we were loaded on to, to be transported to Great Lakes Naval Hospital on Aug 29,1968.
Beverly presented my Muddy Jungle Rivers memoir to a Navy League group in Glenview. Here is a message she sent me.
I think it’s fair to say everyone at last night’s meeting was mesmerized by your story — to a person, all asked how they might purchase a copy — I think your publisher will be hearing from Glenview!
I’m not quite sure where to begin to tell you about my reaction to the book — maybe best to just plunge in…
Your writing is terrific! I felt as if I was right there — you’ve a gift for making the story come alive.
Did I mention previously that I was in Vietnam about 15 years ago? Your descriptions of the river currents and jungle were so vivid — I was right back there as I read. Although my visit was limited to the area surrounding Ho Chi Minh City [Saigon] (and its harbor) and the Mekong Delta (and under completely different circumstances from yours), I recall thinking the environment was totally inhospitable — and what it must have been like for those in combat during the war. I realize full well my concept pales by comparison to the real thing.
Your description of those horrific wounds captured me — both as a nurse and as a fellow human being. And your accounts of the delivery of medical care were beyond anything I’d previously read.
The mob action as your bus left NASG has haunted me all these years since our meeting at the History Center — and more so now that I’ve read the details.
We lived in Chicago in 1968 and saw firsthand the disaster that was the Democratic Convention. As I look back on that time, it’s hard to comprehend that Americans are even capable of the kind of actions we saw back then.
The issues you raise regarding our treatment of veterans resonates even now. While our veterans today by and large have the support of the people, our government still is not doing right by those who’ve put their lives on the line for our country.
As an “old” psychiatric nurse, I’m particularly captivated by the success of your journey with PTSD. There’s so much I’d like to discuss with you — but that’s probably best saved for another day. The fact that you’ve come to terms with so many demons is huge!
My wife and I plan to visit Beverly at Glenview History Center either on the way down or upon our return from the Mobile Riverine Force Reunion in Indianapolis late this summer.
Have you ever been troubled by an event in your past? Troubled enough to revisit it? I did. I needed to make sense of why antiwar protestors would attack a hospital bus carrying wounded troops. The discoveries I made have had far-reaching effects. Here is the story, published in Vietnam magazine about my 2007 visit. Tomorrow I will post a recent development as a result of that 2007 visit.
(double click on page to enlarge)