By Steve Ranson, Nevada News Group
Vietnam veterans and many of those who enlisted after them deployed overseas; others, like their brothers and sisters before them, paid the ultimate sacrifice, dying in a foreign land thousands of miles from the shores of the United States.
Both Army Col. Jerome Guerrero and Capt. Samuel Brown each experienced the life of a combat officer in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, while retired 1st Lt. Andy LePeilbet one of the most decorated soldiers in Nevada, offered his perspective on Vietnam, and Steven Ward shed light on being a Gold Star father.
The annual Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day Ceremony held at the Reno Elks Lodge 597 on Sunday and presented by the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 989, bridged the strength of camaraderie and understanding across generations.
“Why are we here?” asked J.R. Stafford, master of ceremonies and president of VVA 989. “Many of these veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan served their country with honor.”
Stafford said the aim is not to allow decades to pass for the current group of veterans like the years forgot about the Vietnam vets.
“We welcome them home today and honor our Gold Star families,” added Stafford, who, along with his wife Brigitte, organized the event.
Navy veteran Harry Wheeler of Fernley served in Vietnam. He said it’s important for veterans from all ways to be three for each other.
“We were all just answering the call of our country,” Wheeler said.
Likewise, Hugh Ricci of Reno said Vietnam veterans returning in the 1960s and early 70s didn’t receive much of a homecoming. According to Ricci, his family was there to support him.
Now, he said many veterans are receiving the help they need
Guerrero, who currently serves as the Nevada Army National Guard’s director of Personnel in Carson City, attended the University of Nevada, Reno and received most of his military training through the Army ROTC program. In 2002 as a young lieutenant, Guerrero found himself in Iraq as an air mission commander the 101st Aviation Regiment flying Apache helicopters.
It was the shot he didn’t take that kept the audience guessing.
Guerrero said his unit was providing air support.
“We were flying around the village, and I happened to look down an somebody was lining me up,” he recalled.
Guerrero contacted the SEAL team commander on the ground, who eventually approved a strike.
“The mud huts were built onto one another,” Guerrero remembered, adding he also saw children playing.
Taking out a house or possibly more would leave villagers without shelter, he thought. Guerrero notified the commander on the ground who agreed to find the combatant.
“I knew that would be something I’d have to live with for the rest of my life,” Guerrero said of the possible strike.
Guerrero also found himself with another mission after leaving Afghanistan to Fort Campbell, Ky. In January 2003, Guerrero and the unit traveled to Kuwait, and later into Iraq two months later.
“I stand here on the shoulders of great men and women who served before me,” Guerrero said. “Vietnam, Desert Storm … you paved the way. This nation, this state is about freedom. That’s what we stand for. No one will ever defeat the United States.”
Brown, a Reno businessman, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point as war raged in Afghanistan in the new millennium. He said a new generation of warriors served in either Iraq or Afghanistan or both.
“My journey started with 9/11,”Brown said.
Brown, who grew up in Arkansas, said his generation was set to wear the military uniform because the United States was at war. Young men and women, he added, were trained to lead. Likewise, Brown, an infantry officer, found himself in Kandahar in September 2008 with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division three years after graduating from West Point in 2005
Brown’s life changed in a matter of minutes. While on a mission, however, his platoon was ambushed, and his vehicle struck a roadside bomb, severely injuring Brown. Fire caused by the IED engulfed Brown, causing him to worry burning to death. He wondered if there was a “next step” to the afterlife.
He then heard a voice.
“My gunner Kevin Jensen was over my body. ‘Sir I got you,” he said.
The captain’s evacuation flight left Kandahar Air Field for a burn unit in Texas. He reflected on the evacuation but also the other homecomings his generation received.
“We came back to a country that honored us, a country that loved us because your generation met us at the ramp,” Brown said of his Vietnam War comrades. “We have a brotherhood with you. Thank you for what your generation did for us.”
Brown said he also wanted to honor the Vietnam veterans by welcoming them home.
LePeilbet served in Vietnam in 1969 as a young 22-year-old Army lieutenant. By the time he returned home, the Placerville, Calif., native had earned two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star a Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Cross for displaying extraordinary heroism.
“Until that first firefight, we really didn’t know how we would be or how we would react,” LePeilbet said.
In less than an hour, LePeilbet said about 50% of the platoon was wounded. On March 3, 1969, his men faced hostile fire from the North Vietnamese Army. Pinned down by grenade and small arms fire and butted against a river, this platoon couldn’t escape or maneuver to avoid the firefight.
“I saw the greatness of your soldiers in my soldiers 57 years ago,” LePeilbet said, looking toward Guerrero and Brown.
He stressed soldiers who never give up will win.
Ward, a fourth-generation Marine, offered a different perspective of war, one as a Gold Star father who lost his SON almost 12 years ago. As a youngster, Ward said he didn’t understand war, but when his father served in Vietnam, the 7-year-old asked his mother if he could watch the evening new so “he could see his father.”
Ward eventually served a tour with the Marines. His son Eric enlisted in 2008, and almost every Sunday afternoon, both Ward and his son would talk to each other on the phone. On one afternoon in July 2010 the call never came.
Ward’s former wife — Eric’s mother — said men in suits were at the door.
Ward learned from the visitors, four Marines dressed in their uniforms, said Eric, a Marine lance corporal, died in combat in Afghanistan on Feb. 21, 2010, at the age of 19 during what the Department of Defense called hostile action in the southern part of the country. The fifth-generation Marine was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom as a machine gunner with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“That day became a long journey for me,” Ward said.
Since that incident, Ward relocated to Nevada and lived in Fallon for a few months before accepting employment in Yerington. One of the first men to talk to Ward and help him with his tragedy was Tony Yarbrough, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy. Later, Ward became involved with Honor Flight Nevada, a program that takes veterans to Washington, D.C. to see the memorials.
Yarbrough said the concerns of Vietnam veterans were swept under the carpet. Now that about a third of the Vietnam-era veterans are still alive, Yarbrough said it’s important for both generations to discuss their concerns and work together.
Ward also attributes other Vietnam War veterans in his life as those who have defined him as a person.
“Without you, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Ward said of the Vietnam vets who attended the Remembrance Day Ceremony. “Along with the others, I want to welcome you home.”