October 18, 2021

No ‘once upon a time’

Vietnam veterans open up about their war experiences

Jacob DeRochie/contributing photographer

Vietnam veterans Brian Dropchinski, Larry Housel and Michael Moran talk about their memories of serving in Vietnam. It may be a story about trading wooden boxes for potatoes or riding on the back of a motorcycle before getting stopped by Marines.

Ask a table-full of Vietnam veterans what they tell kids about their experience in one of the most-protracted, controversial combat environments in U.S. history.

Dead silence.

“A fairy tale starts out once upon a time,” said Michael Moran, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the U.S. Army as first lieutenant from 1971 to 1972. A Vietnam war story, on the other hand, starts with a promise and a curse.

A half century after many of America’s 850,000 remaining Vietnam veterans came home, they are only now beginning to open up to younger generations about how their experiences changed their lives, and a nation.

However, they don’t always tells tales of death and darkness. They focus on lighter stories, some heartwarming, some funny. As much as they found combat during their tours of duty, they also found compassion and companionship.

About 1,100 of those veterans live in Cortland County, and they are being honored this weekend as part of National Vietnam Veterans Day, which was Friday.

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 in 2017 by President Donald Trump.

While the Vietnam veterans all served in the same war — it’s where they were stationed, what their jobs were and what years they were in the country that serve as ice breakers.

Ask any veteran about the things they saw while serving and they’ll skip the bad things.

“I don’t think you’ll find many ‘Nam vets saying they’re very talkative,” said Brian Dropchinski, a Vietnam veteran who served as a U.S. Army medic from 1969 to 1970. “Just from the guys I know here, the topic’s just never brought up.”

Not even with family. “You don’t talk to a non-veteran, either,” said Larry Housel, an Air Force sergeant in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. “About any of it.”

That’s bad stuff. Stuff to put behind them.

However, open the conversation up to good memories and all have some story.

‘He’d never tell me’

Dropchinski had four children — two daughters and two sons. “My wife more or less explained to them, ‘Dad had a tough time over there and this is something we leave alone,’” he said. “No, we never even had any talks.”

Housel’s son never asked about it. “I don’t think I ever told him anything,” he said.

Housel said he hasn’t talked much about his service.

Moran was lucky though, he said. “My father was in World War II and Vietnam, my mother was a nurse in World War II, we were a military family,” he said. “I was in the reserves. So my kids always knew that the military was part of the stuff and interested in what was going, but I didn’t tell them all the details — because they were too young — but they knew then about my service.”

Moran’s children were more interested in how he and other veterans were treated when they came home.

Housel’s father served in the South Pacific during World War II. When his father came home he never talked about it. “I used to ask him things, and he’d never tell me,” he said. “I never knew why until I came back from ‘Nam.”

Veterans can talk to veterans, the three men said. It’s a shared experience.

“I had two more years of active duty when I came back from Vietnam and then I joined the Army reserves in Ithaca,” Moran said. “It was a group of people, many who had been to Vietnam, and so we could talk to each other about it.”

A new generation

However, Moran has been talking to school children for the past 17 years about Vietnam. Compared to when he first started, children’s reactions have changed. They pay more attention; they seem very interested.

For 17 years, he’s presented at Ithaca High School’s “Soldier’s Story.”

“It has been real enjoyable to talk and tell them about the draft and what was going on in the country, here, and going over there and what was going on over there.”

He doesn’t generally relate the personal details, but he does have a personal perspective on the larger history.

All three men agreed that there wasn’t much public talk about the subject through the 1970s. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan became president that Moran began to see a shift in the public’s reaction toward Vietnam veterans.

“I think that as we’ve gotten older and the country has changed we’ve gotten a little more pride,” Moran said.

“Well I don’t know if whether they’ve finally realized that it wasn’t our fault we were there.” Housel said. “And we’re finally starting to get some recognition for what we have done.”

The public has become educated, Dropchinski said. “We weren’t politicians, we were soldiers,” he said. “That was our job.”

Good times, too

The bad things are not talked about. “It’s the funny things we talk about,” Housel said.

The trio began talking first about where they served.

Then the topics changed.

In June 1969, Housel headed to Da Nang to clean up a munitions dump. It had exploded. He was looking for non-detonated explosives. He had watched the explosion the night it happened.

It was right along the Emerald River, Dropchinski added. He was nearby when the explosion went off. “We watched it, it was like fireworks on the Fourth of July.”

The two didn’t meet then. Now, half a world away, they live about 10 miles apart.

The good stories continued, some the men wouldn’t share. “I’m smiling, but I don’t know if it’s X-rated or not,” Dropchinski said.

One night, Moran stepped out to smoke a cigarette — he’s since quit. While standing outside, an allied Vietnamese soldier, an old farmer, approached him and asked for one. As the two smoked together, Moran pointed up to the moon and told the man Americans were walking on the moon.

“Nah, nah, nah,” he said, calling Moran crazy. “You are dinky dow.”

A couple days later, while driving down the road, Moran and a couple of men picked up a couple of Vietnamese kids riding bikes who later showed them trading cards with astronauts on them.

“In beautiful English, they knew more about the astronauts than we did,” he said.

Dropchinski was 6-foot-1 inch tall and on the back of a Honda 50 driving down the road, in an area he wasn’t supposed to be in when Marines stopped him. They just looked at him. “All right Doc, get in the Jeep,” Dropchinski recalled them saying. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Dropchinski chuckled because he didn’t hide well on the back of the motorcycle.

Housel and his buddies had a housekeeper for his barracks who would tidy up. Occasionally, Mama-san would invite them to her house for a home-cooked meal. He didn’t ask what it was — it was a home-cooked meal.

He grew close to Mama-san and her family. As he left Vietnam, she gave him a pair of high heels, “for his lady back home.”

“And they are beautiful,” House said. The veterans all chuckled.