Vietnam veterans remember time in war
Only about a year ago did the uniform emerge from storage.
It has two patches, representing two tours in Vietnam. Pinned to the right breast is a nameplate with the last name of Sgt. Gary Rhoades engraved in capital letters.
It now rests in a corner of the living room on a dress form, beneath framed commendations and a proclamation from the mayor.
“But he didn’t want to look at it for a long time,” said Patty Rhoades, of Devola. “And he had this other camouflage jacket, it looks almost new… but one day our daughter put it on and he saw.”
She stopped, sat straighter and got quiet.
Terrible memories were associated with that second article of clothing, she said, memories that couldn’t be worn again, memories of losing too many brothers in arms.
“You see and do a lot of things you’d never thought you’d do and many you wish you’d never seen,” explained Gary Rhoades, 73, of Devola.
Rhoades served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and is one of the 11 local military veterans being honored with the first class of the Washington County Hall of Fame.
And like Rhoades, who said he wishes he’d been forgotten, the humility and bravery of another Vietnam veteran will be lauded in that induction on Nov. 1.
“I don’t know if I’m deserving or not. I don’t think I’m any hero or nothing… I was just the guy that if something needed to be done you step up and do it,” said Steven Hall, 68, of Reno.
Both men were awarded Bronze Stars for their bravery in the face of terror.
They say they live with survivor’s guilt, feeling both blessed for lives with families and grandchildren, but mourning the friends who didn’t get that civilian life afterward.
“There are probably thousands of men more deserving than me to be honored,” said Hall. “I feel very humble.”
Both are haunted by memories that still catch their breath and interrupt their sleep.
For Hall, it’s July 4, 1970.
“That’s probably the worst day of my life,” he said. “It was one of those days when everything went bad.”
Hall was a squad leader, out on patrol with his men when they detected an explosive device.
“I sent two guys to check it and then I thought I saw movement in the trees,” he described. “I did what I had to do to eliminate the threat.”
But, he said, part of eliminating a threat entails checking to see who was killed.
“You know, it’s to see if they were an important person or higher ranking,” Hall noted. “But when I went to check, the first thing I saw was a picture of his wife and daughter.”
In that moment, he realized the impact of his actions.
“I’d just ruined a family. That messed me up real bad,” he explained. “I’ve been fighting that demon for 40 years.”
Rhoades described demons too, ones that he had to get up and physically walk away from as he shared his story.
“There were just piles of bodies,” he described. “I watched one guy eat sea rations sitting on top of a (dead North Vietnamese soldier).”
He said the turnover in that bloody war was too fast, too brutal to get to know his men well.
“I went on R&R and my squad leader got hit, so I came back and stepped into squad leader,” Rhoades explained. “You complete the mission, you know? You’re not trying to be a hero. I think (basic training) kind of brainwashed me. I went to volunteer for every ambush I could and I would do it again if I was able.”
He said he tried to do the best he could, he tried to help.
“But the South Vietnamese wouldn’t want to fight the Viet Cong,” he explained of the second tour as an advisor. “Their women, their wives and their kids were kept there in the outpost too and they couldn’t leave unless their captain said so.”
Rhoades repeated the lesson he took with him after he got out of the service.
“I don’t know why I was picked to be the leader, I just did the best I could and I didn’t lose too..” he stopped, speechless, with two tears rolling down his right cheek.
Rhoades stayed silent for a few minutes, looking away until the topic of basic training emerged from his lips again.
“In basic, I fell back and was throwing up,” he described, noting a comrade pushed him to try and motivate him to get going again.
He said the lesson he learned, from that experience, came from his drill sergeant, scolding him for punching the other man.
“He told me that hitting him was like hitting me,” Rhoades described. “One of those lessons you learn is those guys are your brothers. When a guy falls back you help them. You don’t leave them behind.”
Rhoades spent his civilian career in many roles with Union Carbide, and is still a member of both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.
He and his wife Patty have two children and two grandchildren.
Hall still remembers the exact amount of time he was in the war.
“Eleven months, 14 days and 12 hours,” he described. “I was out in the field pretty much the whole time, it was hard to stay dry in those rice patties when you’re out there 30, 60 and 90 days before they bring you back.”
He called himself a “ground pounder.”
“I carried an M-16 and we’d have operations to go out. If there was something suspicious in an area we’d have to go see what was going on,” he explained. “I remember the first time I got a letter from home, I got nine at one time.”
Hall was quick to heap praise upon others he served with.
“Our medic was very good, he tried to keep us hydrated and free from malaria,” he described. “We would have to keep salt tablets because we’d sweat so much our T-shirts would be white with salt, but he was good to us and took care of us.”
And after he returned home, Hall not only spent his career in the local Plumbers and Pipefitters union, he served again, this time 32 years with the Reno Volunteer Fire Department.
“I felt like I helped people, I hope so,” he said.
Hall married his wife Janet after returning home and the pair had two daughters and now have a grandson.
2018 Washington County Veterans Hall of Fame Inductees:
• 1st Lt. Robert L. Pioli, U.S. Army Air Corps 1942-1945; Military Service.
• Pvt. James “Jimmy” Starner, U.S. Army 1944-46; Military Service.
• Sgt. David Smith, U.S. Marine Corps 1953-1956; Veterans Advocate, Professional Achievement, Civic and Community Service.
• Cpl. Joe Matthews, U.S. Marine Corps 1956-1958; Veterans Advocate, Professional Achievement, Civic and Community Service.
• Builder Petty Officer 3rd Class Ronald W. Davis, U.S. Navy 1966-1971; Veteran Advocate and Community Service.
• Spc. Kelly E. Burchett, U.S. Army 1967-68; Military Service, posthumous award.
• Sgt. Gary A. Rhoades, U.S. Army 1967-1969; Military Service.
• Cpl. Charles “Jean” Yost, U.S. Marine Corps 1967-1969; Civic and Community Service.
• Sgt. Meredith L. Barnett, U.S. Marine Corps 1969-1970; Military Service, posthumous award.
• Sgt. Steven J. Hall, U.S. Army 1969-1971; Military Service.
• Cpl. Kyle A. Hockenberry, U.S. Army 2010-2013; Military Service.
Source: Washington County Veterans Service Commission.
Note: The Marietta Times will continue the series recognizing the 11 veterans to be inducted in the inaugural Washington County Veterans Hall of Fame leading up to the induction ceremony scheduled for Nov. 1.