December 2, 2021

‘We’re here, we made it’

Local vets recall their experiences in Vietnam

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Local Vietnam veterans, from left, Ted Silvers, Mike McDermott, Tom Margrave and Brian Dropchinski talk about their wartime experiences last week at the Cortland VFW.

This story appeared in the March 31, 2018 edition of the Cortland Standard. It is part of a focus piece centered on telling the stories of local Vietnam War veterans.

Other parts:
Ted Silvers: ‘What did we accomplish?’
Mike McDermott: ‘Mad Dog, still alive’
Brian Dropchinski: ‘We were still soldiers’

Vietnam veterans returned home from one war just to walk into another one.

Dodging bullets became dodging spit. Facing attacks by Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops became facing verbal attacks from fellow Americans, even their neighbors. Hunting for food supplies became hunting for jobs.

“We got yelled at, spit at, called baby killers and every other name in the book,” said Vietnam veteran David Hobart, 75, of Cortland. Another Vietnam veteran, Carl Bullock of McGraw, 66, remembers coming home to a hostile welcome in 1972 after serving in Vietnam for two years.

“It was hard to find a job,” Bullock said. So tough, even for an entry-level job, he gave up. “After 14 months I went back in and made it a career,” he said.

That was 1973. He retired 20 years later and now runs Cortland County’s Veterans Service Office.

Bullock and Hobart joined four other Vietnam Veterans at the Cortland VFW on Main Street to recount their stories. Others included Vietnam veterans William “Ted” Silvers, Mike McDermott, Tom Margrave and Brian Dropchinski.

When they served

• Carl Bullock: 66, Army, served 1970-72
• William “Ted” Silvers: 70, Navy, served 1968-69
• Mike McDermott: 72, Navy, served 1967-68
• Brian Dropchinski: 72, Army, served 1969-70
• Tom Margrave: 73, Army, served 1969-70
• David Hobart: 75, Navy, served 1965-67

Every story is as unique as the veteran telling it — all 3.4 million deployed to Southeast Asia between August 1964 and March 1973. You will never hear 58,220 unique stories — the number of military people who would die in Vietnam. They were, predominantly, not much older than boys; 61 percent were 21 or younger. Another 303,000 were wounded.

But the veterans have experiences in common, too. And today, just two days after National Vietnam Veterans Day and 45 years after the last troops left Vietnam, they will be honored in Cortland with a ceremony and event from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Main Street.

Their duties

While the veterans at the roundtable had Vietnam in common, their jobs and experiences differed.

Bullock was a patient administrator for the Army with the Sixth Convalescent Center. Silvers was a Navy corpsman attached to the Third Marine Division.

McDermott was in Navy counterintelligence, decoding radio transmissions from the North Vietnamese. Margrave was an armored cavalry platoon leader in the Army and ended his tour as a troop commander.

Dropchinski was a medical adviser with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam in the Army. Hobart served in the Navy and was part of the naval advisory group.

They saw different things, worked in different places. But they share a label: Vietnam veteran.

Going to war

All the veterans clustered around a table at the VFW recently volunteered to go to Vietnam, except for Hobart. He had orders to go to a different station, but when President Lyndon B. Johnson began sending troops over to Vietnam in 1965, he was part of that group.

The last U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973. However, Vietnam was a 30-year civil war, from the day the Viet Minh sought to overthrow French colonial authorities until the day Saigon fell in 1975.

The first U.S. advisers arrived in 1950, during the Truman administration. Month by month, year by year, the numbers would grow, until an apparent attack on a U.S. ship in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964 became the catalyst for exponential U.S. involvement in the war.

Since the earliest involvement in the 1950s, 58,220 would die, the first on June 8, 1956. For Hobart, the memories of Vietnam still haunt him. There was little he was willing to talk about.

“It aged me, I’ll tell you that,” Hobart said. “I felt like the age I am now when I got out of there.”

Unkind welcome

Silvers said he volunteered because his family felt patriotism was a virtue. He had already been accepted to college, but joined the Navy, wanting to be a corpsman. While working at St. Albans Naval Hospital he requested orders to go to Vietnam.

“Two reasons: One, I felt I had to do my part; and two, I wanted to test myself,” Silvers said.

McDermott’s grandparents were immigrants and he had uncles that served in World War II. He volunteered because he felt it was his duty. There was no doubt about it, he said.

But during a mortar attack his ideal of fighting in the war changed.

“Thought I was nuts once I got there …. ‘What the hell did you do?’” McDermott said.

The others felt the same about when they got to Vietnam, too.

“I was a 21-year-old kid sitting on top of a bunker made of sandbags realizing, ‘We’re not in this war to win it,’” Silver said.

“Absolutely not,” Hobart added. “The whole thing was a joke. The government lied to people why we entered Vietnam.”

Their welcome into Vietnam was a sign of what was to come.

“I stepped off that plane and thought I walked right into a (expletive) oven,” Silvers said.

McDermott recalled the rain. Monsoons, really. “Pouring rain,” he said.

“Oh, God, yeah. Thirty days straight it rained,” Silvers said. The rain was so bad helicopters couldn’t get out in the field to resupply the troops.

Because of that, Silvers said patrols were sent out for days to try and find C-rations dropped by parachute.

There was even a nasty smell. One to this day he still can’t explain. “There was just like an awful smell,” McDermott said. “I can still smell it.”

They don’t want to talk about details.

“I won’t talk about that place,” said Hobart, as his face turned red and he mumbled a few more words about the war to himself.

Unexpected homecoming

Coming home was another story.

“We never came home the same person, not one man or woman did,” Dropchinski said. “We grew up way too quickly, and not in a nice way.”

When McDermott got home from a year in Vietnam, he said he remembers people telling him not to wear his uniform because of how people felt about the war.

“We’re a collection of people subjected to this nonsense,” Dropchinski said. “We had to come home to it and hear it. We were soldiers trying to do our job with our hands tied behind our back.”

Many Vietnam veterans, such as Bullock had a hard time finding a job when they got back. Some states would license the medics and corpsmen like Dropchinski and Silvers as emergency medical technicians — but not in New York.

“Well one thing that really burned my ass was we got nothing when we came back,” Bullock said. “We were treated poorly not only by the folks at home, but by the VA and we got no thanks, but those individuals who avoided the draft and went to Canada were given amnesty. And that was just a slap in the face.”

It wasn’t all bitter. The veterans around the table agreed the VA clinic in Freeville has been very helpful, as opposed to service they said they got from the VA hospital in Syracuse in the past. However, Margrave said the VA hospital in Syracuse has improved a lot in the recent years.

They also praised Bullock’s work as director of Cortland County’s Veterans Service Office.

Honoring the veterans

About 382 Vietnam veterans die every day, Dropchinski said. A 2016 study found about 850,000 Vietnam veterans remain in America with around 1,100 Vietnam era veterans in Cortland County.

The first National Vietnam War Veterans Day was celebrated in 2012 by a proclamation by then-President Barack Obama. The commemoration was signed into law last year by President Donald Trump.

“Let us give tribute to the guys while they are still here, because they had such a lousy homecoming when we did come back,” Dropchinski said.

McDermott went on to ask the rhetorical question of what could the men and women who died have become if they had lived. “We’re here, we made it,” McDermott said.