Ceremony to remember Vietnam veterans

Vietnam veterans Rod Oldenburg, left, and Mark Swistak honor American troops lost at sea during the 2022 Memorial Day ceremony at East Ferry.

Vietnam veterans Rod Oldenburg, left, and Mark Swistak honor American troops lost at sea during the 2022 Memorial Day ceremony at East Ferry.

Fifty years ago, when a ceasefire ended the Vietnam War, yellow-ribboned “Support our Troops” bumper stickers didn’t greet American servicemen on their homecoming.

“We landed in San Francisco on a commercial plane, and I couldn’t get out of that airport fast enough,” said Rob Oldenburg, 72, a retired chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy who served nine months on the aircraft carrier USS America during the war. “It wasn’t where I wanted to be for very long. All those bonehead Hare Krishnas running around.”

“When I came back to a small town in Massachusetts, after I developed a pretty good drinking habit in Vietnam, I went to the VFW thinking that I could join,” said Jack Sheehan, 80, who arrived in Vietnam as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marines and left 13 months later as a captain. “They wouldn’t accept me. They told me Vietnam wasn’t really a war.”

“I arrived back at the University of Rhode Island, and most of my fraternity brothers joined the National Guard so they wouldn’t have to go to war,” said Mark Swistak, 77, who was a first lieutenant with the U.S. Army during his year-long tour. “Nobody asked me about my experiences. Throughout my life, people have avoided asking me questions. Especially the men who avoided the draft. I’m not saying I’m a hero. But I wasn’t negotiating a way not to go. It’s not like I wanted to go to Nam. I’m not that freaking brave.”

The only Jamestown resident to die in Vietnam, Cpl. Joseph T. Vandevender.

The only Jamestown resident to die in Vietnam, Cpl. Joseph T. Vandevender.

“We’re not that stupid, either,” added Dan Ustick, 81, who commanded a swift boat during the war for 366 days.

Oldenburg, Sheehan, Swistak and Ustick are four local Vietnam veterans who are helping the local VFW and American Legion posts commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the ceasefire.

Dennis Webster, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who served 28 months in Vietnam, is the brainchild of the ceremony. The event will be at Cedar Cemetery at 11:30 a.m. March 29, which is National Vietnam War Veterans Day. The date marks thee end of the 60-day deadline for American troops to leave Vietnam following the ceasefire.

For Webster, who was in Vietnam for 25 days after the ceasefire, it was a simple observation in February 1973 that validated the realization that fighting was done.

“I was down at the helipad for some reason, and I remember the helicopter coming in, and it had doors on it, but no machine guns,” he said. “You always had a machine gun on each side with a door gunner. I was surprised they even had the doors in country. I don’t know where they stored them for six years.”

Rude awakening

As Webster recalled the end of the war, Ustick remembered his introduction to Vietnam when he landed at Cam Ranh Air Force Base.

“I thought to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here.’ There are all these dirty, war-weary people stumbling around. Then it was time to go to the navy base, so I get on the bus and the driver literally gave meaning to to the word shotgun. I asked what the gun was for. He said for protection on the way to the base. Then I noticed chicken wire on the outside of the bus. I asked what that was for. He said it was so the Vietcong can’t throw grenades into the bus.”

Ustick then laughed. “Welcome to Vietnam. That was my first hour and a half.”

Unlike Ustick, Oldenburg had no idea he was going to war. He thought his ship was leaving Virginia for a six-month mission in the Mediterranean.

“Jolly Roger running around Europe,” he said. “Then about 12 miles after we pulled anchors, the captain comes over and says, ‘By the way, we’re not going to Europe. We’re turning south and going around Africa.’ That was our notice that we weren’t going to have a good time.”

After their arrival in Vietnam, the men realized they had more than the Vietcong to fight. The weather and mosquitos were challenging.

“I was hit with more hot, humid air than I have ever experienced in my life,” Ustick said.

“Then when it wasn’t, it was raining raining like a mother,” Sheehan added.

“It was almost cold,” Webster said.

Sheehan also relayed a grimmer welcome-to-Vietnam experience.

“The first time I smelled dead bodies was in Vietnam,” he said. “And you didn’t have to tell me what it was.”

“You have to give credit to the enemy,” Sheehan continued. “They’d run out and grab these unexploded bombs that were just lying there, and the next thing you know, I’d be bopping along with my convoy, and they’d blow the goddamn thing up. It seemed unfair. They used our bombs, our batteries, our communications wire. We should have at least billed them. It was a different kind of war that we have ever been exposed to.”

Not all of these war stories have remained in the past. Swistak can remember the exact date when his unit was being mortared and rocketed in the hooch, and to this day, radio ads and window creeks that replicate those noises still bring him momentarily back to Vietnam.

“Especially at night,” he said.

Post-war trauma

Swistak says he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and although he always knew something had changed about him following the war, he wasn’t diagnosed until later in life.

“It was like you were in purgatory,” he said. “And when you came home, you were coming out of cave. You were screwed up and it was very difficult to adjust to people carrying on a regular lifestyle. Consequently, it took us a long time to recognize that we were not as nice as we used to be.”

Ustick also wasn’t diagnosed until later in life. He didn’t seek help until the psychiatrist wife of a Vietnam radioman told him, “You don’t go into a combat zone for a year and come out without having PTSD.”

“So, I went to get screened,” he said. “And guess what? I had become an a-hole.”

Along with the heat, humidity, mosquitos, rockets, mortars, dead bodies and ensuing PTSD, one of the hardest things about Vietnam was the disconnect with the United States, according to Swistak.

“There was no communication,” he said. “Our spouses and family were at home watching the bad news on TV, even if we were OK. We could have been drinking beer and having a good time. They would have no idea.”

Ustick and his crew mitigated that problem with booze.

“We got a bottle of scotch to give to the radio operators when one of the cargo ships anchored,” he said. “They would find someone on a ham station in the U.S. to transfer the phone call, and we’d be able to call home for a fifth.”

The men also spoke about the anxiety with dealing with the short-time calendar, which referred to the final months before a troop was scheduled to leave Vietnam. Sheehan remembers an officer in his final days being shielded in a bunker for safety.

“Everybody else is running missions, and I’ll be damned, but a rocket came in and killed him. You can’t run and you can’t hide, so once you got past about eight months, you get a little antsy. I felt so short, that if I jumped off a dime, I’d break my neck.”

“You’re almost going,” Swistak said. “And the closer you got, the more your stress level increased.”

Webster said the reason for hosting the ceremony is because most veterans of the war “never had a proper welcome home.” It will be conducted at the gravesite of Cpl. Joseph Tommy Vandevender, the only Jamestown resident killed in the war. The low-key ceremony will have no color guard, no band, no rifle squad.

After a brief introduction, there will be an opportunity for every Vietnam veteran to say a few words, whether to remember an incident or speak about a comrade. Community members also will have an opportunity to briefly remember friends or family who served in the war. In inclement weather, the ceremony will be conducted at the Conanicut Grange, 6 West St.

“The trouble was that nobody liked the war,” Ustick said. “We were the messenger. So, we got killed. And it took years for a blessed American population to understand that we didn’t start it. It was a job to us. We were just taking orders from the guys in Washington.”