By the time Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops and the American embassy scrambled to evacuate the remaining Americans and as many Vietnamese from the South as they could in 1975, most Americans no longer were glued to their television sets to see what was going on in the Southeast Asian country.
That was evident by how the Fall of Saigon played in La Plata County. The Durango Herald ran a story below the fold on the front page May 1, 1975: “PRG (Provisional Revolutionary Government) announces conquest of South complete.” None of the iconic images we associate with April 30, 1975, ran on the newspaper’s pages – not then, not on the 10th anniversary, or the 20th, or even on the 25th anniversary, when the landmark date was recognized with the story of a Durangoan who had visited Vietnam.
Much has been written about how poorly returning troops from Vietnam were treated, and more has been written about the legacy of disabilities, illnesses caused by the use of chemical agents such as Agent Orange and suffering caused by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because of how they were treated, many veterans rarely speak of what they experienced, sometimes because there doesn’t seem to be anyone who is interested, and sometimes because the memories are too painful to revisit.
“I’ve thought much on the war,” former Army 1st Lt. George Usinowicz said, “the shock and awfulness of it – and you have to use the full word there – and think no one should pass judgment unless they were there.”
Almost 1,500 Vietnam War veterans lived in La Plata County as of 2013, the most current number available, and the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon added to the urgency to document those memories while there is still time.
“We’re losing vets all the time,” said former Coast Guard Warrant Officer Fred Riedinger III, who is active with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4031 in Durango. “Some are dying, some can’t stay here because of the altitude, some are getting older and need to move to be near family.”
Five La Plata County residents agreed to share their stories, in part, some of them said, because of what they see going on today in the Global War on Terror.
“I’m not sure how I can equate then to now,” said former Army Capt. Joseph Perino. “But I think we see it in other things going on currently in the Gulf situation and other places like that. It’s the same thing, once you go in there, theoretically, you can’t leave because if you do, it will go back to what it was, and maybe worse.”
Usinowicz, who began his tour with the 65th Infantry Division, made one significant point that resonated throughout.
“Our war was different than the Delta war in the swamps and rice paddies,” he said. “Our war was different than on the guys on the (demilitarized zone), our war was different than being in the topography and terrain of the central highlands. Our war was in double-canopy, triple-canopy jungle, where there was unbelievably steep terrain beneath the jungle, different canyons, and then there were the rubber plantations.”
The “different wars” were certainly true of the veterans interviewed for this story.
Former Army 1st Lt. Judy Dennis was at an early evacuation hospital patching up casualties. Perino led reconnaissance patrols up north in the mountains, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and along the coast, reporting to Lt. Col. Norman Schwarzkopf. Riedinger cruised with the Coast Guard offshore interdicting weapons. Former Army 1st Lt. John Malarsie was in military intelligence under the auspices of the CIA, isolated from most American forces. And Usinowicz and his platoon of combat engineers cleared tunnels, disarmed booby traps and ordnance and cleared landing zones for helicopters in the jungle.
But some of the legacy rang true with everyone.
Dennis, who served as the U.S. buildup was beginning in 1965, said she was warmly welcomed home and asked to speak at several organizations. All four men interviewed had negative encounters with civilians after their service.
For Malarsie, the tensions started even before he shipped out to Vietnam.
“We went to New York City on a weekend (rest and recreation),” he said, “and all we had to wear was our uniforms. One bar after another kept turning us away – ‘We require a coat and tie,’ ‘We only accept couples,’ and so on. We finally found a bar in ‘Germantown’ that would let us in.”
Malarsie will talk about the war only with people he thinks are truly interested. Perino allowed two Animas High School students to interview him for a project, but he wouldn’t talk about the war part of his experiences. Usinowicz headed to Europe to escape the atmosphere in America after his tour, holing up in a cabin near Purgatory Ski Area on his return. He credits skiing with saving not only his life but the lives of several other veterans, as well.
None of them spoke without sadness and disappointment. And everyone struggled with some degree of PTSD.
“I felt betrayed by my country,” Dennis said. “I was very idealistic and believed we were there to help. I was so disappointed after I saw the mayhem and loss of life.”
Perino summed up a truth that applies to all of them.
“We were soldiers,” he said. “We did the best we could.”