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Pandemic restricts remembrance ceremonies for Vietnam vets

One of area organizers served during Tet Offensive, later in Coast Guard

By Steve Ranson Nevada News Group

Disappointment pierced the tone of his voice.

Events to honor Vietnam veterans as part of the Vietnam War Veterans Remembrance Day succumbed to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving those who served 7,800 miles away in Southeast Asia more individual time to think of their service. 

Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day, which presented speakers and vendors one year ago at the Reno Events Center, and an afternoon ceremony conducted by Carson City’s Vietnam Veterans of America chapter 388 at Mills Park, recognized both the service and sacrifices of those who served. The governor’s restrictions placed on the number of people who can gather at any one time dashed an opportunity for an encore.

Honor Flight Nevada, though, made a call for a small group of veterans and board members to meet at the Mills Park memorial. They wanted to show the Vietnam veterans that the community remembers them even during troubling times.

“If you wear the uniform of our country — no matter when or where, there is a brotherhood and a sisterhood of shared experience,” said J.R. (John Robert) Stafford, the first-year president of the Sierra Nevada VVA chapter 989. He was one of the organizers coordinating the day at Truckee Meadows Community College.

The chapter and TMCC teamed up to host a day-long event that featured a concert from an Army band and remarks from Brig. Gen. Michael Hanifan, a Douglas Country resident who has held a number of high-ranking positions in the Nevada Army National Guard. With 2020 being the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Stafford also wanted to recognize the veterans from the “Greatest Generation.” Vendors were primarily coming from Reno and Carson City.

“We were going to have a myriad of people in this community brought to one place and present the Nevada Department of Veterans Services, Veterans Affairs, Disabled American Veterans, Veterans in Care …,” he said. “It’s remarkable there are so many different organizations( who signed up).”

Part of the cancelled program at TMCC included a wreath-laying ceremony, and after the event, Stafford said the Patriot Guard Riders were bringing the wreath to the Carson City ceremony that’s conducted near the Nevada Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Each year a speaker discusses a certain aspect of the Vietnam War, and members from both VVA chapters participate in a wreath-laying ceremony. Members rotate by reading the names of 151 Nevadans who lost their lives in Vietnam and the playing of Taps. 

Stafford, who served in South Vietnam with the U.S. Air Force and completed his career in the U.S Coast Guard Reserve, spent parts of 1967 and 1968 at Da Nang Air Base as a Morse intercept operator with the 6924th Security Squadron.

“I went through the Tet Offensive (January-February 1968),” Stafford said. “I was in the rear echelon where the guys were dodging the rockets. We had a compound within the compound for the ops (operations) building and intercept site.”

Bunkers and concertina wire surrounded the compound. Stafford said the base endured its share of rocket attacks and gunfire.

“It was the nature of the business,” he pointed out. “We couldn’t have them (North Vietnamese Army) overrun us.”

Stafford, who was in the U.S. Air Force for four years, spent his first year in technical training at Biloxi, Miss., and then the next two years in Kyushu, Japan with the 6918th Security Squad. After returning to California in 1968, Stafford joined the fire service in Santa Clara County. The itch to return to military service was too much for Stafford to ignore, so in 197, he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve when he answered a call for structure firefighters.

“I wound up spending 32 years in the Coast Guard Reserve as a marine firefighter and incident command instructor,” he said.

Another opportunity greeted Stafford 18 years ago. After he retired from firefighting, he requested to return to active duty for more than four years, having spent six months at Guantanamo as the command master chief for the Coast Guard Security Force of the compound. He also had a short tour as a training officer with the Coast Guard Strike Team located in Novato, Calif.

“I had extensive  travel,” Stafford said. “I had to go to Japan, Alaska and Panama.”

Once his four-year commitment ended, Stafford worked for the U.S. government for eight years as an exercise support specialist who worked on oil spills and earthquake recovery exercises. In July 2016, Stafford and his wife, Brigitte, left the San Francisco Bay area and relocated to Reno. Stafford, though, was content to begin another life.

“I was one of those people who didn’t associate or get involved with Vietnam vets or VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), but my wife encourage me,” Stafford recalled.

The following year, the Staffords visited the Nevada Museum of Art which presented “Take Me Home Huey,” an art experience dedicated to Vietnam War veterans and the issues they face. That’s where he first met John Dickinson, who was heavily involved with VVA 989 with his wife, Linda.

Stafford was hooked. He joined the color guard, took an active part in chapter functions and was elected president in 2019. He succeeded Linda Dickinson, who spent four years at the helm.

“She has been most supportive as has John (Dickinson),” Stafford said.

Stafford discovered there’s more to do as president than bang a gavel. The focus provides a series of events and activities for the membership such as attending Military Appreciation Night at Greater Nevada Field, participating in parades and being involved with Spartan Pledge.