Even 40 years later, recollections of the Vietnam War evoke tears in the eyes of those who served in the military, as well as those who witnessed the events at home.
Longstanding conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam bled into war that began in 1954. U.S. involvement grew in 1969. In Franklin County alone, 16 men are recognized on the war memorial on the courthouse lawn, 315 S. Main St. The conflict didn’t end until 1975.
For Rick Burgoon, 65, a lifelong resident of Ottawa, serving in the U.S. Navy from 1967 to 1971 was an opportunity to leave home in Kansas for the first time, to learn discipline and see Hawaii, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore. At 19 years old, Burgoon said, he worked aboard a naval ship in Vietnam to patch bullet holes in airplanes.
Burgoon, who often wears a Navy cap, is now the vice president of Vietnam Veterans of American Chapter 912, a group boasting 55 living members of 95 total members. He said some veterans are just now beginning to open up about the experiences in the war that haunt them today.
“There’s so much that they’ve held inside for so long,” he said. “We talk. We’ve got guys now that are talking to us that would hardly talk at all because they would tense up. We hope we are helping a lot of people.”
Richard Nienstedt, 63, Ottawa’s city manager, said Monday was his first opportunity since he was a young man to relay stories as a Vietnam era veteran.
Not long after Burgoon left the military, Nienstedt enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at age 21 in 1972. He said two years later he was shipped to a permanent base in Biturg, Germany, where he served as a sergeant in a War Readiness Spares Kit Unit, a supply stop for F-4 aircrafts.
Deployments took him to Italy and Spain. Similar to Burgoon, Nienstedt said the experience gave him maturity, a new view of the world, and the opportunity to serve his country and relate to current events — experiences he feels have shaped who he is today.
Nienstedt said his responsibilities over a supply unit were easy compared to those who served in combat roles.
“What you have to take away from the Revolutionary War until today, these people put the most valuable thing they have on the line, their lives, and some of them gave it all,” Nienstedt said.
Burgoon said even where he was stationed in a combat zone, the greatest hazards were either getting in the way of a propeller or inhaling jet exhaust. By the time Burgoon graduated from Ottawa High School in 1967, he already had lost a cousin and good friend in Vietnam, followed by two more friends, he said.
“I feel remorse at times because other people were in harm’s way,” Burgoon said. “But sometimes you wonder if you had done something different if it would’ve made a difference or not. Live with what happened and let it go.”
While Burgoon was away from home, Susan Geiss, 63, archivist for the Franklin County Historical Society, was growing up in the area. Geiss said it wasn’t until she was in high school in 1968 when she began to become more aware of the war as the media coverage and controversy over U.S. involvement in the conflict increased. She said her sisters attended the University of Kansas where students protested violently.
Meanwhile, Ottawa remained peaceful from what she remembers. Like many families, her father, grandfather and uncle had served in previous wars and conflicts, and for that reason her parents were in support of the war against communism.
“It was an environment that was pretty supportive of the military,” Geiss said. “ ... I bet a lot of us felt that because a lot of people my age would’ve had parents that had been in World War II and because of that, that support was just automatic. That’s what your country was doing. You supported your country.”
She said she remembers watching the lottery to see which of her male friends would be drafted when she was a senior in high school in early 1970.
Men and women started returning to their homes once communist forces seized Saigon in April 1975, signaling the war’s end. Nienstedt said he remembers the exact day he flew home to his parents in Illinois because it was the 34th anniversary of Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1975.
“My mother hugged me and cried,” Nienstedt said with tears welling in his eyes. “I never really understood that until I had children. And my Pop was not a guy who demonstrated a lot of affection, but Pop hugged me and ... it was a genuine fatherly hug from a guy who’d probably been there and who was glad that his son was home.”
Geiss said her most vivid memory of the war was when she was 23 and living in San Francisco in 1975. She said she watched the television coverage of the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in South Vietnam during the nightly news.
“Helicopter after helicopter left from the roof of the U.S. embassy,” she said. “As Americans evacuated, hundreds of South Vietnamese citizens mobbed the embassy hoping to be evacuated and rescued from rapidly advancing North Vietnamese communist troops. It was really sad that the war for us had ended this way after the deaths of so many Americans and others in the struggle.”
As the gap between those days and today grows, memories fade, veterans pass away and younger generations are taught more recent history.
To relate to the past events, Nienstedt suggests talking to relatives who served in the military or visiting the World War II, Korean War and Vietnam memorials in Washington D.C. to grasp the impact on the country he thanks for opportunity.
“I can’t describe how you feel when you stand there and you understand what the names are on there,” he said.
Closer to home are the Healing Field of Flags — more than 500 American flags set up in City Park this year — which he said is a moving experience.
When Burgoon and his fellow servicemen first came home to Ottawa, he said, they didn’t mention their time in Vietnam. When he arrived in San Francisco in 1969, the peak of the war, people threw garbage and yelled disrespectful names, he said.
For years, Burgoon said certain Vietnam veterans have fought the prejudice that they weren’t actually involved in war. He said it has gotten better as time goes by and that people he meets today at events thank him for his service.
Members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 912, a U.S. Congress sanctioned chapter, raise funds and collect supplies needed at the VA hospital as well as mentor men in the 1990s Gulf War, Burgoon said.
“After all these years, you never give up on your fellow servicemen,” he said.
Burgoon, who retired from the Santa Fe Ralroad in 2009, can be found these days serving as an Ottawa Recreation Commission board member and in the Watch D.O.G.S program at Lincoln Elementary School.
Amelia Arvesen is a Herald staff writer. Email her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AmeliaArvesen.