December 2, 2021

Brian Dropchinski: ‘We were still soldiers’

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Brian Dropchinski was an Army medic in 1969 and 1970.

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:
‘We’re here, we made it
Ted Silvers: ‘What did we accomplish?’
Mike McDermott: ‘Mad Dog, still alive’

Brian Dropchinski didn’t want the memories.

The alcohol helped push them away — for a time. But only for a time.

When his wife left him, his career evaporated and he was left homeless, all he had was the booze.

And the memories.

What memories. Dropchinski was an Army medic in 1969 and 1970 serving with I Corps in the northern part of South Vietnam.

For a time, alcohol helped push them away. But it didn’t stop there.

Eventually his wife left after 30 years of marriage and he hit the lowest point in his life, jobless and homeless. It wasn’t until about 12 years ago that Dropchinski, now 72, finally got the help he needed.

Dropchinski served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970 for the Army as an Army medic. He was stationed near Da Nang and Chu Lai.

The war had changed. The Tet offensive of 1968 showed Vietnamese resolve and had already began souring U.S. opinions of the war. Rather than take land and villages and hold it, strategy had turned to a war of attrition — who can kill the most.

President Richard Nixon had authorized the bombing of Cambodia. And in mid-May 1969, 46 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were killed in a 10-day battle taking a lump near Hue dubbed “Hamburger Hill,” not far from where Dropchinski was based.

Then the Army left the hill behind.

While the strategy was to kill the most, Dropchinksi was a medic, trying to save the most. He doesn’t like to talk about the experience. What he saw. What he did. He doesn’t want those memories.

“We ended up coming back angry, and the more that we heard and the more that we learned about what was truly going on, we became bitter,” Dropchinski said.

“Why do we spend seven days to attack a worthless hill that provided no military strategy whatsoever?” Dropchinski asked. “The losses were horrendous. We took the hill of nothing but trees. Then we turned around and walked back down and never went up there again. Explain that.”

Vietnam veterans came back knowing the government was probably running a ridiculous campaign, Dropchinski said. “But we were still soldiers.”

The first thing someone said to him when he landed home in Newark, N.J., was, “What are you doing with your uniform on — are you crazy?”

It was in part due to many Americans’ disgust with the war and those who served in it, and due to a riot about the war and social justice going on in Newark at the time.

Still a soldier, Dropchinski said: “You’re darn right I’m going to wear it.”

Over time, after reading news reports and talking with family, the facts of the war became more apparent to Dropchinski. In college, after the war, he said Vietnam veterans at the school were isolated from the rest of the students and had their own club. The general public at Orange County Community College wanted nothing to do with them, he said.

When he went to his local VFW in New Jersey they refused to let him join, he said. They told him: “We don’t want you, you lost the first war in history.”

He remembers that. He doesn’t want to.

His fellow student veterans began to realize what the government had told them was not true.

“It was sobering to find out that we weren’t the good guys, and maybe we weren’t doing the right thing there,” Dropchinski said. “The initial quest of saving the people from communism was what we were brainwashed in to. The reality was a corrupt war.”

Many Vietnam veterans have had a hard time facing that, Dropchinski said. They don’t like talking about the war and some go into a shell. When they went for help, people would say “What’s wrong with you, you couldn’t handle it?” Dropchinski said.

Guys didn’t want to seem weak, he said; many never sought help.

Alcohol became his medicine. He’d go to a gin mill in New Jersey with other Vietnam veterans. Like everywhere else, they were isolated, but they could talk to each other.

Eventually his drinking caught up with him. After 30 years of marriage, he and his wife divorced. What was left of his life fell apart. He couldn’t work, he felt like he couldn’t do anything and had no one for support.

His daughter, Michelle Card of McGraw helped “pull him back into the human race,” he said. About 15 years ago, she told him to come to Cortland to get help.

“She’s been my crutch and support,” he said. “She had to do what most daughters shouldn’t have to be in a position to do.”

With help from Card, he connected with Cortland County Veterans Service Director Carl Bullock, a Vietnam veteran himself. He finally found help.

Bullock told Dropchinski the drinking was a problem and he must face his problem. He helped Dropchinski get set up with a psychiatrist.

Dropchinski has now accepted everything, he said. He spends his time working as a quartermaster for the Cortland VFW and with his grandchildren, focusing on new memories.

Memories he wants.