Proud to serve
April 4, 2017
As president of the Vietnam Veterans Association 388 in Carson City, Tom Spencer is proud to serve now as the chapter's president just as much as he did as a soldier almost 50 years ago in Vietnam.
As a young Army soldier who enlisted in 1968 and spent two tours in Vietnam, Spencer served in the 359th Transportation Co., which hauled fuel in the central highlands and faced 13 ambushes conducted by the Viet Cong.
"I was there for the Tet Offensive in '68 … we were a big, fast easy target to shoot at," he recollected before Saturday's annual "Welcome Home" ceremony at the Nevada Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Mills Park.
During the Tet Offensive, enemy forces launched a coordinated attack against targets in South Vietnam that coincided with the lunar holiday or "Tet." The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces suffered heavy losses before finally repelling the communist assault.
The 69-year-old Spencer, who moved to Carson City 41 years ago from San Jose, Calif., said he is pleased the country is more accepting of the Vietnam-era veterans and that National Vietnam Veterans Day, which began in 2012, recognizes more than 8 million men and women who served either in country or in a support role.
"Yes, they (the public) are more accepting, but I was a Vietnam vet before it was popular," he said.
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Spencer, along with former chapter president Frank Reynolds, also were instrumental in working with Honor Flight Nevada and its CEO and founder, John Yuspa, in arranging flights for Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C.
"We put together the first two flights, and I was on the second one," Spencer said. "I loved it. It was great."
For three days, veterans traveled to the nation's capital, saw the monuments and Vietnam Wall and reminisced about their days in a foreign land thousands of miles from the United States.
For the several hundred veterans who attended Saturday's ceremony, they felt the bonds of friendship and brotherhood among those who served in all branches of military service as told by keynote speaker Carson City Mayor Bob Crowell.
"Today, with this Welcome Home Ceremony and the many ceremonies going on around the nation, we honor and pay our respect to all the 2.6 million service men and women who served, fought, died or were wounded in that war," he said in his remarks.
"We also honor those who were and may still be prisoners of war together with those who are unaccounted for or missing in action and we pledge to keep them in our prayers and a table set for their return.
"Today we honor the families and friends of our Vietnam Veterans —families and friends that stood by us and cared for us even when the going got tough.
"Today we honor our fellow brothers and sisters for all that they do each and every day to ensure that we remain the greatest country on earth."
Crowell knows first-hand of the sacrifices these men and women made a generation ago. Crowell, a Vietnam veteran and retired U.S. Navy captain, served two tours aboard the destroyers, the USS Wiltsie and the USS Waddell. He told of the many sacrifices in which one in every 10 servicemen and women died (58,300) and almost 2,200 remain missing in action or prisoners of war. More than 300,000 were wounded, 75,000 of whom were severely disabled.
"It was a war where the average infantryman saw about 240 days of combat in a year — compared to World War II where the average was 40 days in four years which was bad enough," Crowell added.
The mayor also gave additional statistics about those who served:
Almost half of these servicemen and women who died were under the age of 20.
More than 17,000 of those killed in action were married.
Forty sets of brothers and three sets of father and sons were killed in action.
226 Native Americans were killed in action.
150 Nevadans died including seven from Carson City, eight from Fallon and one each from Minden and Virginia City.
Members from both Carson City and Reno chapters of the VVA read all the names of those died as a result of the Vietnam War.
Crowell said Vietnam fell in April 1975 after combat troops left the country in 1973, and the U.S. ceased sending aid and arms to South Vietnam while the enemy continued to receive support from the Soviet Union and China. Crowell said the U.S. did not lose the war in military terms.
"From a military standpoint the performance of our military forces in Vietnam was nothing short of exemplary," Crowell said. "While we suffered casualties, no battle of significance was lost … for our veterans, you have every right to be proud of your performance. For the friends and families of our veterans, you also have every right to be proud just as our veterans have every reason to thank you for your unwavering support and understanding. Suffice it to say, many of us would not be here today with that support."
The veterans who attended Saturday's ceremony said they served with honor.
"It was a very good experience for me," said Dayton's Don Bemis, who served as a Navy radioman aboard a swift boat in Cam Ranh Bay, a deep-water bay located at an inlet of the South China Sea situated on the southeastern coast of Vietnam. "During my year tour, we were fortunate we didn't suffer any deaths."
For years after he returned home, Bemis said many people would not recognize the Vietnam veterans, but times have changed. He now wears his Navy uniform to many events honoring veterans including the Welcome Home ceremony.
"I wear it with pride anytime I can," he said.
Likewise, Gary Meckler joined the Army and spent time in Vietnam in communications. He never understood why the country turned its back on the veterans since Congress and the Pentagon dictated policy.
"They were just doing a job," he said of the servicemen and women who deployed to Southeast Asia.
During the years, Meckler said the country has become more accepting, and he discovered how interested people are of that era when he traveled to Washington, D.C. aboard an Honor Flight.
Lynn Dickinson, president of Sierra Nevada Chapter 989 in Reno, said Vietnam veterans tell her they were glad they served and appreciate the recognition afforded to them now.