Southern Utah Vietnam veterans honored for their service by Daughters of the American Revolution

Although the military personnel pictured here are from the Global War and Terror their brothers and sisters in arms who served in Vietnam were honored Tuesday during an annual celebration recognizing their service, location and date undefined | Photo courtesy Washington County Democratic Party

ST. GEORGE — When Vietnam veterans came home, they were often ignored, shunned or worse. However, a national program signed into law in 2012 is trying to heal the emotional wounds left behind by this treatment.

Members of Dixie High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC cadets present the nation’s colors during this year’s annual celebration honoring the nation’s Vietnam veterans, St. George, Utah, Nov. 9, 2021 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

On Tuesday, in recognition of the sacrifices Vietnam veterans made during two decades of service, more than 80 Washington County retired military members were honored as part of an annual commemoration event.

Veterans were presented with a lapel pin and a certificate from the Daughters of the American Revolution Color Country Chapter as symbols of the nation’s gratitude. More than 200 other veterans and family members attended the ceremony. Veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. armed forces from Nov. 1, 1955, to May 15, 1975, regardless of location were eligible to receive a pin.

Similar events are happening in many communities across the country, with nearly 90 separate events held in Utah this year.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are approximately 7 million living Vietnam veterans and 9 million families of those who served.

Mental health experts say events like that on Tuesday are a “tangible” way to help heal the emotional scars that some Vietnam vets still carry to this day.

The keynote speaker during the event was United States Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hester, chair and lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, local Post 2628.

Hester is one of eight children – four boys and four girls – all from a military family.

His father served at the Battle of the Coral Sea during World War II, and two of his uncles fought in Europe against the Axis powers. Hester’s two older brothers gave the last full measure of devotion, dying in Korea while serving in the U.S. Army. Their bodies were never returned. His youngest brother served in the U.S. Coast Guard.

For Hester, it was a personal journey joining the military.

Retired United States Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hester, chair and lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, local Post 2628, was honored as the keynote speaker at this year’s Vietnam veterans annual event in St. George, Utah. Photo location and date unspecified | Photo courtesy American Legion, St. George News

He entered the Navy in 1957 and attended the Great Lakes Naval Boot Camp.

In the enlisted ranks, his duty assignments ran the gambit in the Navy’s meteorology field, including a posting with the International Ice Patrol Squadron and later the Navy’s Hurricane Hunters Squadron in the South Atlantic entering the eye of eight storms – by all accounts a challenging and dangerous job.

In 1964, he was accepted to the Naval Officer Candidate School.

After receiving his commission as an officer, Hester had his orders to attend flight training, eventually qualifying in the A3D Skywarrior. To this day, it is the largest jet to ever take off and land on an aircraft carrier.

The Skywarrior’s nickname, “The Whale,” was fused for bombing runs on targets of opportunity, but its primary mission was high and low-level reconnaissance missions from Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

The airbase provided nearly continuous electronic reconnaissance missions over the area, including enemy movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail all the way north to Haiphong Harbor.

In January 1968, while on his 143rd mission – prior to the Tet Offensive – Hester and his two crew members were shot down while providing cover for a group of Marines, all under the age of 21.

More than 160 Marines were surrounded by North Vietnamese Army units.

On their fourth pass, Hester’s aircraft received a direct hit to its hydraulic system, belly-landed and broke apart in a nearby freshly sprayed Agent Orange-treated rice paddy deep in Southwest Vietnam.

The Douglas A-3 Skywarrior was originally designed as a strategic bomber for the United States Navy and was among the longest-serving carrier-based jet aircraft in history. It entered service in the mid-1950s and was retired in 1991, photo location and date not specified | Photo by Robert Huffstutter via Flickr, St. George News

During the engagement there were 28 killed in action, and 121 able to escape; however, 12 young Marines decided to turn around and save the aircrew of the stricken plane.

To this day, Hester finds it a challenge to hold back his tears about this day.

“I had 17 broken bones and fractures,” he said, “but the upper part of the senior officer’s body was on fire … and the other crew member in the plane was screaming for help. He was burning to death.”

Hester said the 12 Marines who came back “waded right into about 27 hardcore (enemy). I could see them all around me, and it was hand-to-hand combat.”

Hester said he doesn’t know how ground units find the courage to do remarkable things.

“This was my first taste of ground war,” he said. “I could not believe what I saw. Here came these young men … and for five to 10 minutes there was a whole lot of crap going on.”

When it was over, one of the Marines had died laying across Hester’s chest with eight others dead in the rice patty.

“The kid who was dragging me, the Marine who died on my chest, I could hear the thud of the bullets hitting his back,” Hester said. “During combat, I heard the rounds whistle past my head. I thought I was dead. It was the worst day of my life.”

For gallantry in action, Hester was awarded the Silver Star. He received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in combat and other medals of distinction.

“I am alive today because of these ground-pounders who didn’t care about themselves, had no idea who we were,” he said. “That’s Americans looking after Americans; that’s brothers looking after brothers. We all went overseas with good hearts. We performed to the best of our ability. … You did it because you cared. You were Americans.”

After surviving the crash and during nearly 10 months in a hospital, Hester met an Army soldier in a wheelchair who had lost both legs.

More than 150 veterans and their families attended this year’s annual commemoration for Washington County’s Vietnam veterans community, St. George, Utah, Nov. 9, 2021 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Hester asked what this soldier wanted to do after returning back to the states, to which he responded that he just wanted to hear the sound of children playing.

“I never forgot that,” Hester said. “He then added if he could hear children at play he would know it was all worth it. I was very moved by that, and to this day I can still see him in that wheelchair making that comment.”

Hester went on to recall the title of a novel written by Steven L Rankin Publishing: “A Veteran is Someone who at Some Point in Their Life Wrote a Blank Check Made Payable to the United States of America Payable for an Amount up to and Including Their Life.”

“This is honor,” Hester added.

‘That brotherhood is something that carries on forever’

Along with the pinning ceremony, November is an important month within the military community.

The month marks the World War I armistice calling for a ceasefire that ended hostilities between the Allies and Germany on the 11th day, 11th month at the 11th hour in 1918. Although the armistice did not completely end the First World War, it was the agreement that stopped the fighting on the Western Front while the terms of a permanent peace were discussed.

November is also an auspicious month for the United States Marine Corps.

On Wednesday, the Corps celebrated 246 years of defending American interests and its national security across the globe. The United States Marine Corps began in 1775 when the Second Continental Congress ordered two battalions of Marines to be raised for service as a landing force with the nation’s fledgling Continental Navy.

Retired Marine, Pat Lisi, Commandant, Utah Dixie Detachment 1270 Marine Corps League, experienced combat in Vietnam War and was wounded in action in 1969.

Lisi said he joined the Marines as a rifleman because he knew he was headed to Vietnam, and the lure of becoming one of the few, the proud, the Marines brought great pride as he signed his enlistment papers.

“It was the late ’60s, and I was flunking out of college, so I pretty well knew I was going to get drafted,” Lisi said. “I chose the Marines because I knew I would get the best training. … And besides, I didn’t want to be just another guy serving in the Army. I knew if I was going to be in the military it would be in the Marines.”

Soon after enlistment, Lisi found himself deployed to Vietnam just after the Tet Offensive began in 1968.

The offensive was an attempt to spread rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement in the Vietnam War. Although U. S. and allied forces eventually pushed back the North Vietnamese, American and South Vietnamese casualties numbered 12,727, including more than 2,600 killed.

In total, more than 58,000 military and civilian personnel died in Vietnam, according to the United States National Archives.

“I would still have enlisted, probably with the Marines, but with a different (job) to do, so I didn’t have to go over to Vietnam and watch all of the carnage,” Lisi said. “But when I was in Vietnam I wasn’t sorry I was there. What happens is that you find you are with your fellow brothers and fighting to get each other home. … You really would lay down your life for the guy fighting alongside you. That brotherhood is something that carries on forever.”

For wounds suffered in combat, Lisi was awarded the Purple Heart.

U.S. Army veterans share similar stories.

Army veteran Danny Greathouse – president of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 961 – deployed to Vietnam in 1968 as a mechanic, then crew chief for a CH-47 Chinook, which has the reputation of one of the heaviest lifting capabilities of any Western helicopter flying today.

Left to right: Retired United States Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hester, U.S. Marine Bruce Raftery and Army veteran Danny Greathouse at Vietnam veteran commemoration ceremony, St. George, Utah, Nov. 9, 2021 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Greathouse was stationed with the 101st Airborne in the A Shau Valley, a little more than a mile from the Laos border.

During one “endless” mission, Greathouse supported ground troops during the battle for Hamburger Hill.

For almost 11 days in May 1969, American troops waged a deadly battle for control of a 3,000-foot-tall hill in a remote valley in South Vietnam. The battle for Hill 937 – commonly known as Hamburger Hill – resulted in more than 400 U.S. casualties.

“It was all about getting involved to rescue and provide supplies to Marines and Army patrols in the jungle,” Greathouse said. “It was a great thing to be able to do something to help the ground troops. My main mission was to do what I had to do. I always felt good about doing my job.”

For his heroism in combat at Hamburger Hill, Greathouse was awarded a Bronze Star, along with a second Bronze Star for rescuing an Army platoon under heavy fire in the A Shau Valley that resulted in four wounded and two dead.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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