ASHLAND — As Vietnam war-era veterans and their family members entered the Eagles Club in Ashland Saturday evening, they were greeted with the words “Welcome home.”
For many veterans in attendance, the welcome had not been so warm when initially returning from combat in the 1970s.
Veterans shared through interviews with Ashland Source, and with one another, accounts of being spit on and scolded when in the U.S. during and after the war’s end. Some had not talked about their service until decades later, others not even then.
Saturday’s event — the third Ashland Vietnam Era Reunion dinner hosted by local Vietnam veterans associated with the Ashland Veteran Appreciation — served as a gathering to encourage open discussion among Vietnam veterans of their service.
In addition to conversations over dinner, Ashland hosted guest speaker Donna Rowe, who served as a head triage/emergency nurse in a field hospital in Saigon during the war.
A previous event speaker presented Rowe — Ronald Rutowski, who was wounded in Vietnam on the same day of the dinner a little more than half a century ago, March 26, 1968.
The two met for the first time this weekend but found out they may have crossed paths decades before if their service wavered by a few months. Both ended up at a hospital in Saigon in 1968 — Rowe as a nurse and Rutowski as a patient.
Rutowski went to Vietnam in May 1967 at 18 years old and was wounded during the Tet offensive. Rowe arrived in Saigon about a month later and worked as a nurse through 1969.
Rowe’s speech centered around a story from that year of service:
May 15, 1969
It was the May offensive and supplies were running low. Rowe said the 3rd field hospital, where she was head of emergency/triage, had strict orders for accepting casualties: U.S. Armed Forces first, then U.S. civilians, allied forces, host country military forces and lastly Vietnamese civilians.
The 1st Infantry Division radioed for air-evacuation, asking if the hospital where Rowe was based could receive a Vietnamese civilian casualty — an infant found in her dead mother’s arms.
Rowe said she told the hospital to accept the casualty, regardless of the consequences.
“She fit from my hand to my elbow,” Rowe said of the baby when she arrived.
The baby was hemorrhaging and had to undergo hours of surgery, Rowe said. Rowe urged the chaplain on-site to baptize the baby fearing she would either die, or if she did live, she would likely be taken in by the Catholic orphanage the hospital supported.
When the chaplain asked what name to call the baby, Rowe suggested Kathleen — the name Rowe intended to give her daughter one day. Rowe ended up with three sons and joked it had been good she used the name.
After hours of surgery, Kathleen survived. A U.S. Navy lieutenant later adopted her.
Kathleen's story is featured in a documentary titled “In the Shadow of the Blade,” which led to Rowe, Kathleen and others from the hospital that day reuniting. Kathleen now has three daughters and lives in the U.S.
When telling Kathleen's story, Rowe said it is a memory that belongs to all veterans.
"That story is your story," Rowe said.
Paths to service
Saturday’s event was open to all Vietnam War-era veterans, regardless of whether those who served traveled to Vietnam or saw combat.
Vietnam veterans spanned branches of the military — Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard.
Rutowski also paid tribute to the medics, nurses and doctors who served in Vietnam through written thoughts offered to attendees:
Others, such as John Moffett, spoke about life in the U.S. during the war.
Moffett joined ROTC at Ohio State University with the intention of serving in Vietnam. He studied to be an Army lawyer, but by the time he concluded his studies the war was winding down and he never got called in, he said.
As an ROTC student, he said he faced criticism from classmates and professors. But never wavered on his decision to serve.
“My grandpa served in World War I and my dad in World War II,” Moffett said, explaining the family legacy of service overrode daily push back.
The event was also open to spouses and family members. Moffett's wife of 52 years, Judy, said events such as the dinner have helped her and other military spouses she knows understand what their relatives have gone through.
The relationship between the Vietnam War and its veterans is conflicting for some.
For example, veteran Lance Barker said he was opposed to the war in Vietnam while it was happening — and still holds that view today. Barker originally made plans to go to Canada after high school.
But he wound up with 17 years of military service, starting in 1974.
When asked why he changed his mind about the Vietnam War, he said he hadn't. What changed was his view of the soldiers who served after he crafted a fulfilled life through his service.
"I'm still against the war, I'm not against the vets," he said.
Opposition to the war from the American public and the criticism veterans have faced because of it was a main topic of discussion Saturday.
Some, including Rutowski, are still seeking closure.
Rutowski spoke about the human costs for all involved. He thinks about the thousands of American lives lost during the war. He is also struck by the Vietnamese lives lost — casualties that surpassed U.S. deaths by millions.
Rutowski said as he tries to recall the feelings he had during his service in Vietnam, it often seems as if he is recounting memories from a third-person point of view.
"It was almost like it happened to somebody else," he explained.
It's unclear when or if closure will come for Rutowski, or other veterans, but many noted Saturday began a process to confront feelings and memories long suppressed.
Ashland Mayor Matt Miller presented Rowe with a statuette of the "A" symbol for Ashland, Ohio.
"You'll be the first one to ever receive this — in fact this is the only one that exists in the world today," Miller said.
Regarding financial contributions, Ashland Eagles presented a check to the Ashland Veteran Appreciation Events organization Saturday for $1,000.
More than 100 veterans, along with spouses and family, attended the reunion dinner, according to the program.
Ashland County residents killed in Vietnam included Roger Adams, Larry Kane, Richard Long, James Stephens, Kenneth Heifner, Earl Anderson, Larry Martin, Terry Schaub, James Hawks, Jarold Veach, Eldon Kirkpatrick Jr., Tim Kendall and Jeffrey Keetle.