Vietnam vets ceremony honors service, heroes and sacrifice

Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the state’s adjutant general, receives a standing ovation on March 23 for his closing remarks at the Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the state’s adjutant general, receives a standing ovation on March 23 for his closing remarks at the Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance at Truckee Meadows Community College.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Stories of heroism and a salute to veterans from all modern-day wars recognize the men and women who have donned a uniform and carried arms to serve their country.

The annual Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Day on March 23 at Truckee Meadows Community College not only honored the military for their service a half-century ago in Vietnam but also recognized those who fought in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard veteran J.R. Stafford, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Sierra Nevada Chapter 989, emphasized during the afternoon presentation the meaning of service and sacrifice. He said “never again will one generation of veterans abandon another” in a reference of the poor treatment and backlash Vietnam War veterans received when they returned home to the United States after serving a tour to Southeast Asia.

Thousands of dog tags

The Nevada Veterans Coalition from Fernley posted the colors, and the Patriot Guard Riders placed wreaths for all veterans from the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as for the Gold Star families.

That remembrance for current veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan has become a yearly honor for thousands of Northern Nevadans. Felipe Gutierrez De Alba, TMCC’s Veteran Service program director and a Marine sergeant who served in Iraq, said the men and women who fought in the most recent wars have been honoring the fallen for the past six years.

“In 2018, the student veterans from TMCC partnered with their counterparts from UNLV to honor the veterans who lost their lives during the Global War on Terrorism over the Memorial Day weekend,” Gutierrez said.

Precious cargo accompanied the Operation Battle Born ruck march during the weekend. Two rucksacks contained almost 7,000 dog tags, each one representing a fallen warrior — including 57 Nevadans with their names engraved — who has died since the United States was plunged into a Global War on Terrorism in 2003.

“Last year we added 150 more dog tags from the Vietnam War,” Gutierrez pointed out.

Each dog tag has the name of a Nevadan killed in Southeast Asia.

This year’s ruck march also will honor the Vietnam veterans. The ruck march, according to Gutierrez, begins May 24 at Eastside Memorial Park in Minden where a replica Vietnam Moving Wall will be on display.

Freedom is not free

Nevada Lt. Gov. Stavros Anthony, the guest speaker, offered his tribute and reflections for Vietnam War veterans. He said the Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Act of 2017 was a bipartisan bill passed by Congress and signed by former President Donald Trump.

“Nevada remembers and honors fallen soldiers throughout the Silver State,” the first-term lieutenant governor said, noting the official end of the Vietnam War was May 7, 1975.

Anthony said it’s important for citizens to remember the number of veterans who died and continually die due to their physical and invisible (suicide) wounds.

“Let’s not forget freedom is not free, and those who have fallen have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms and liberties,” he added.

The reference to serving or paying the ultimate sacrifice fell on the shoulders of five veterans who told of their experiences during the most recent wars. One Gold Star father whose son was killed in Iraq also spoke.

Beauty and war

Marine Gunnery Sgt. James Hutcherson, a member of VVA 989, said those in the military realize they have a job to do. He described both the allure of the Vietnam scenery with the reality of war.

“You go and do your job,” Hutcherson said. “When we flew into Da Nang in 1965, I saw the beautiful, lush, green countryside. I was amazed by its beauty,” he said. “I didn’t think of it as a jungle or war zone. The Seabees had carved out an airfield for us, and this was our home away from home.”

Hutcherson further described the layout of the tents, generators and wooden walkways between the tent. That first night, though, rocket fire from the Viet Cong lit up the base, one of the major staging points in South Vietnam.

“The rocket attack was very scary,” he remembers. “The siren went off, and we went into the closest bomb shelter.”

That next day Hutcherson and the other Marines viewed the damage caused by the rockets. Hutcherson’s first tour to Vietnam lasted only four months, but he later returned to Da Nang for 13 months and saw how the base expanded since he left. Coincidentally, a rocket attack welcomed Hutcherson and the other Marines on their first night.

If Hutcherson had a takeaway from Vietnam, it was the weather.

“You walked in the rain, you worked in the rain and the aircraft flew in the rain,” he said.

Once the rain subsided or the temperatures warmed up, he said Vietnam was hot and humid.

“Vietnam has had a lasting impact on me even though I was physically injured,” he added. “My impression of Vietnam is a beautiful country but the hardest country to fight a war.”

An intense firefight

Fellow Vietnam War veteran Andy LePeilbet, a highly decorated Army officer with two Silver Stars and a Purple Heart, also added to the war’s narrative of bravery and fortitude. As a young 22-year-old first lieutenant, LePeilbet, who lives in Reno, and his men engaged the North Vietnamese Army in combat.

“We were in a firefight in seconds, and one of my men goes down with chest wounds,” LePeilbet narrated to the audience.

During that firefight, LePeilbet said one of the soldiers had his leg blown off and another soldier, a staff sergeant, showed a hole in his hand where he had been hit by fire.

“He said he could still shoot, and his shooting hand was mangled from the bullets,” LePeilbet said.

LePeilbet remained intense during the firefight and didn't realize he had been hit until his radio operator noticed blood oozing from his lieutenant’s back. LePeilbet reached behind his back.

“I brought my hand up front, and it was solid red, and it was my blood,” LePeilbet described.  “I was literally paralyzed waist down … zero pain.”

The soldiers’ heroism on that day resulted in the presentation of two Distinguished Service Crosses and seven Silver Stars. LePeilbet had witnessed heroism before his eyes.

“My platoon had 50% plus casualties,” LePeilbet reported.

LePeilbet, though, emphasized veterans are close to one another, especially during an adverse situation.

“It’s the brotherhood. It’s the commitment to each other. It’s not just serving the country but serving each other,” he said. “We will battle through anything to support this country. We are a family brought together by a single, common bond … a connection we would have never had in the first place.”

Army colonels on deployment

U.S. Army Col. Scott Hooper and his wife, Col. Karolyn Hooper, retired from the military in 2016 in North Carolina, but eventually they relocated to Nevada. They met as staff officers when they were deployed to Iraq for a year while serving in the Bastogne Brigade, the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, Air Assault.

Scott Hooper said a story that left “an inedible impact” on his life occurred during the battle of Mosul on July 22, 2003. In that shootout, Hooper said the story included American soldiers were involved in a raid with the codename of Operation Tapeworm.

“I was a battalion operations officer at that time stationed in northern Iraq,” he said. “Operation Tapeworm resulted in the deaths of the two vile sons of Saddam Hussein (the deposed Iraqi president).”

On that July day with the temperatures reaching 125 degrees, Hooper said many soldiers were fighting for their lives. He called in airstrikes in a battle he described as “crazy, insane.”

Karolyn Hooper discussed her deployment to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division from 2008-2009. She was the deputy chief of staff at the regional command located at Bagram Air Field northwest of Kabul. She also served with Regional Command South at Kandahar, the base with the largest airfield in the country. The commanding general and Hooper boarded a helicopter to take Christmas presents to an infantry brigade.

The situation surprised her with the soldiers on patrol. Hooper described the solders, who were on a three-week rotation, as physically fit because of their patrolling the hilly terrain. Because of the dangers posed by the Taliban and other fighters, they couldn’t patrol in the open but had to be concealed.

“What we saw was this incredible camaraderie and brotherhood and love for one another,” Hooper said. “It’s something you see in situations like combat across all eras, all wars. It’s something so special … It’s hard to explain to people.”

During her time in country, Hooper said she worked with many Afghan counterparts, both in the country’s army and with the businesses that tried to succeed in the war-torn country. She described how the younger generation had spark.

The Hoopers moved to Reno from North Carolina four years ago and are co-founders of Horsemanship for Heroes, a nonprofit organization Hooper describes as one that “conducts equine-assisted learning and psychotherapy for veterans and emergency responders.”

“I saved a life”

Gold Star father Richard “Rich” Crombie of Reno, who served in the Navy from 1977-1986 as a submariner and achieved the rank of petty officer first class, described the anxieties and sorrows of a losing a son in Iraq in 2006.

Crombie’s son Nick enlisted in the Army in 2005 and wanted to do his part in the Global War on Terror. After basic and advanced training to become a combat medic, the 18-year-old from Winnemucca was assigned to the Second Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment. He had also earned the rank of private first class.

“His first and last tour was at Ramadi,” Crombie said. “Nick was very proud of his service in the United States Army. “His letters describe his basic journey to Kuwait and then to Iraq.

“May 14, 2006 — Currently, I am in Kuwait deployed on a standby mission to Iraq.

“I guess everyone has their own reason for coming here, but for me it was to find something, answers to life, God or just myself. Whatever I hope it is, I hope to find it.”

Nick Crombie added it was another reason to serve in the Army.

The audience crew very still, very quiet as Rich Crombie continued reading his son’s letters.

May 29, 2006. Memorial Day.

“I’m in Iraq right now and safe. I went on patrol the other day, and I got to save someone’s life. It was an Iraqi guy, and he was shot in the upper abdomen.

“I went to fix him up where we were on patrol. It was pretty exciting, and he lived. I got to save someone’s life with all my cool medical knowledge.”

Nick Crombie also mentioned the hot, dusty and sandy conditions at Ramadi. Rich Crombie said his son was overjoyed with saving someone life.

“He wanted to do more,” Rich Crombie added.

A letter dated June 3 arrived. Nick said he was going to a part of Iraq that had 40% of all the casualties. He would be flying into the area by helicopter.

“I’m scared,” Nick wrote that day. "I’m scared with the fact I may die today.”

Rich Crombie’s words were met with silence.

“June 7, 2006. There was no letter. It was not Nick’s turn to go out on patrol that dark, early morning. But the medic assigned to that patrol was sick. Nick volunteered to take his place.”

Crombie said Nick was riding in the passenger side of a Humvee when the vehicle struck an IED, improvised explosive device. Both Nick and the driver, 32-year-old 1st. Lt. Scott M. Love, were killed.

A staccato pattern in his delivery increased. Crombie said his son is buried in section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery. Nick Crombie was 19 years old when he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, and he received the Bronze Star for saving the Iraqi man’s life.

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) training program was named in 2021 after Crombie and is located at the Southern Nevada State Veterans Home in Boulder City.

Crombie said Gold Star families have much in common.

“We are a family brought together by a single, common bond,” he said looking up.

If not for the sorrows of war and deaths of loved ones in a foreign land, however, Crombie ironically said that bond would never have happened.

Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the Nevada National Guard’s adjutant general, wrapped up the remembrance ceremony and said veterans and those who support veterans love their country.

“Thank God we live in a great country with so many heroes,” Berry said. “There are so many stories we don’t know about. Shame on us if we don’t tell the world what we witnessed today.”


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