January 18, 2022

Forged by war

Veterans remember life, before and after Vietnam

Photos by Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Vaughn “Chip” Isaacs, of Nedrow, reminisces about his life in 1968 while serving as an Army Ranger in Vietnam during a veteran’s meetup Thursday at the Cortland VFW. As a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Isaacs grew up in a culture where military service was revered.

They were young men, teenagers, early 20s. Their peers grooved to the Beatles’ latest project, the White Album. They watched Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Frank Borman become the first humans to orbit the moon aboard Apollo 8. Redwood National Park in California was dedicated.

They saw the student protests over Vietnam; they read about the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. It was a confusing time for America, a people divided. It had been 50 years since the armistice of World War I, the armistice that gave birth to the holiday that honors them today, and they saw the veterans of that war — old men.

That was 1968 and they were in Vietnam — the year the Tet Offensive showed America just how committed their Vietnamese opponents were.

They’re old men now, like the World War I veterans of their youth. But they’ve been old men for 50 years. Vietnam didn’t just make them grow up; it made them grow old.

‘Nobody understood’

“You grew up a lot faster ,” said Mike McDermott of Homer. “You got old … mentally.”

McDermott joined fellow Vietnam veterans — Richard “Dick” Small, Brian Dropchinski and Vaughn “Chip” Isaacs — at the Cortland Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Main Street. They talked about their lives before Vietnam and how the war changed them.

While the nation and the world were dealing with issues of their own, McDermott, Richard Small, Vaughn “Chip” Isaacs and Brian Dropchinski were either serving or enlisting in Vietnam.

What they went through is hard to understand. “Nobody understood unless you were a Vietnam vet,” McDermott said.

High school to the warfront

Small, 71, grew up in Cortland and attended Cortland High School.

After graduation in 1966, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as part of a 120 plan — an incentive plan that paid high school seniors four months of a private’s pay to enlist on the condition they begin active duty 30 days after graduating.

“At the time in the 60s, once you graduate if you’re not going to college you were going to service,” he said. “You were going to get drafted anyway, so I figured I’d do it that way.”

Small was 19 years old when he went to Vietnam. His job was to carry an M-60 machine gun, a 23-pound, 3 1/2-foot long weapon that could send 650 rounds a minute to kill someone two-thirds of a mile away. It was nearly as big as Small.

He wanted to go. “I thought it was like cowboys and Indians,” he said. “I didn’t know about it.”

Small was in country from 1967 until January 1968. “I got wounded in ‘68,” Small said, medivaced after getting struck by a rocket-propelled grenade. “Tet Offensive.”

Two years later, in 1970, Small was discharged, given a voucher and advice to buy jeans and a shirt so he didn’t wear his uniform home to avoid the protesters’ harassment.

He found work and met his wife. “I got out, you know, and kind of forgot about it,” Small said.

Except he didn’t. He just got used to the changes the experience forged in him.

“I didn’t like going to fireworks or stuff like that,” Small said. “You just outgrow it and get used to it.”

He left the prostate cancer behind, too, for 14 years now following surgery. The cause was Agent Orange, an herbicide used by U.S. military forces during the Vietnam War to eliminate forest cover and crops.

Sometimes, Small looks back and thinks, “Jesus, how did I do that? I don’t think I could ever do what I did back then.”

Sometimes he has darker thoughts. And the dreams return, periodically.

“You wake and say, ‘Jeez,’ “ he said. “Other than that I’m fine now.”

Vietnam veterans Dick Small, left, and Brian Dropchinski, both of Cortland, share a laugh Thursday during Thursday’s gathering at the Cortland VFW.

Physical education to Army medic

Dropchinski, 72, was attending Orange County Community College in Middletown, and saw things that angered him. “I was in college and disturbed by the demonstrations,” he said.

That was when he decided to turn from his two-year degree in physical education and enlist.

When he first starting school, Dropchinski, who saw himself as an athlete, had planned on a career of teaching physical education as well as coaching.

During his time at Orange County Community college he saw students, former veterans of Vietnam, treated horribly.

“I was unaware of what the truth was at the time,” Dropchinski said. “But I was raised to be patriotic and tired of radicalism so I enlisted.”

In Vietnam, Dropchinski served in the Army as a medic.

After the war, Dropchinski returned to Orange County Community College to finish his degree. It didn’t happen. He received the same treatment he had seen years before.

“We all got treated horribly,” he said.

Following that his family moved to Richfield Springs in Otsego County, near Cooperstown. His daughter attended SUNY Cortland and later settled in McGraw.

Following family problems, he moved to Cortland. “So I could be closer to her,” he said.

After returning home from the war he recalled certain comments from World War II veterans in New Jersey, the same guys Veteran’s Day honored. “The remark I heard constantly that burnt me the most was, ‘You weren’t really in a war,’” Dropchinski said. “And, ‘You were the first guys to lose a war.’”

Mike McDermott, of McGraw, talks about his life in the 1960s while serving in the U.S. Navy.

Still walking

McDermott, 73, was at the University of Maryland on a scholarship, when he was asked to leave.

“I didn’t know you were supposed to go to class,” he joked. “I used to party.”

McDermott knew he was going to be drafted. He enlisted, instead.

“I said I’d joined the Navy so I don’t have to walk,” he said, and specialized in communications and intelligence.

He was in Germany when he got orders to go to Vietnam. “I said, ‘Where the hell is Vietnam,’” McDermott said.

First, jungle warfare school in West Virginia, then Vietnam to join a Marine Corps unit, the 1st Radio Battalion in Phu Bai — and lots of walking.

“I never wore a Navy uniform after that,” he said. “There I was, a Navy guy, saying, ‘What happened to the Mediterranean cruises and a girl in every port.’”

He didn’t see heavy combat, he said, but he was shot at and even light combat can kill. “I was wounded over there,” he said.

“Once you get shot at, I said, ‘No, that’s not for me,’” he said. He left Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in January 1968.

He finished school, got married and had kids.

He went to work for the U.S. Postal Service as a letter carrier. “Here I am walking again,” he said.

But he couldn’t walk away from problems. For years, he couldn’t sit down at a seat with his back against the wall. And don’t surprise him.

On a cold day at the Cortland American Legion post on Tompkins Street, he was sitting inside when he heard a shot.

“I dove immediately on the ground,” he said. “It was like a gunshot.”

The source of the noise — one of the windows on the door was so cold that it cracked. “It sounded just like a gunshot,” he said.

It was embarrassing, but it was just a reaction. Something he’s had to learn to live with.

However, McDermott loves fireworks.

Army to art

When Isaacs came home from a year as a long-range reconnaissance patrol specialist with the Army Rangers, he was an honored warrior — but it came at a price.

As a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, Isaacs grew up in a culture where military service was revered, even during the tumult of the 1960s.

So after his mother died and he left school in the ninth grade to support his brother and sister, it didn’t take a lot to talk him into enlisting.

“I could shoot as many guns as I wanted and get three square meals a day and I got paid for it,” said Isaacs, 69.

As a Ranger, he was part of a five-man team that scouted deep into territory, both friendly and enemy. He makes a walking motion.

“I could go 75 miles out,” he said.

Upon his return home, he could wear his uniform on the reservation. “Everybody was proud of me being a soldier,” he said.

He became an iron worker. Got married. Had kids.

He became an artist. “I started doing jewelry,” he said, carvings, too. The Smithsonian Institution has one of his pieces.

A good experience; a good life.

But two decades ago, the Agent Orange that Isaacs was exposed to exacted its price: cancer. Multiple surgeries. Two years ago, a carotid artery ruptured. He survived.

He tells his stories with gestures and glances and smiles. The words come from his interpreter, Kitty Salmon.

The cancer was in Isaac’s throat, and he’s been silent for 20 years.

Vietnam stole his voice.

Not all bad

Vietnam changed their lives, but not every experience was scarring.

There are memories of stealing the commanding officer’s beer and playing practical jokes. “It was a lot of sick humor,” McDermott said. “It wasn’t all bad.”

McDermott recalls the day his company came across a village in Vietnam that was victim to mortar fire.

McDermott’s company found a woman in labor. He was asked to bring the corpsman to help. “But the corpsman was laying next to me dead,” McDermott said.

McDermott was the radio operator. He called for help. He got instructions. He delivered a baby and held it while other soldiers helped.

“I never saw anything like that in my life,” he said.