ERIE, Pa. – A group of Chautauqua County Vietnam Veterans traveled to Erie, Pennsylvania Friday, to pay respects to fallen comrades at the Wall that Heals, a replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Among those who took the day-trip to the exhibit were U.S. Army Veterans Donald Armstong and Wes Tessey, who were just young men when they were drafted.
“I was a machine gunner, with the Americal Division in Vietnam on LZ West and LZ Baldy,” recalled Tessey. “Everyday over there, you were a target, you were just a target, it was a rough life. We didn’t have a barracks of anything, we had a hooch, it had a cover over it, it was underground, it was wet all the time, you had your M16 every minute when you were in there, it was a tough thing to do.”
After he was injured in a firefight, the then teen was medevaced to Japan. After healing up, he was sent to Fort Dix in New Jersey where he worked a variety of odd jobs, including cleaning up in the veterinary clinic.
“People have said to me, ‘you came back from Vietnam, and you were put in a dog kennel?’ my response to them is, a dog kennel is Heaven, compared to what we went through in Vietnam,” continued Tessey.
While Wes Tessey served on the ground in Vietnam, Donald Armstong worked for the Army Security Agency on a base in the Pacific.
“Out job was radio intercept, so we intercepted all the communications that were going on,” explained Armstrong. “I can’t get any more technical than that, because they’d send the men after me.”
He recalled the pushback from the American Public when he returned home, in fact, he was turned down a job because of his service.
“I used to climb telephone polls that were up as high as 180 feet and repair around big antennas,” continued Armstrong. “I had graduated second in my class for my primary MOS, and I walked up to the telephone company and I showed them my credentials, they said, ‘ahh, we don’t care about that, we don’t need anybody,’ but I knew they were hiring.”
The reason, Armstrong goes on to say, was due to a number of things including how far away the war was from the American homeland.
“From each town there weren’t hundreds of people going like there were back in the World Wars,” explained Armstrong. “It was maybe eight or ten from a small town, and 30 or 40 from a larger town.”
Which is why Armsrong says it’s important for the public to visit memorials like the Wall that Heals in Erie, Pennsylvania this weekend.
“I think if they come and see the wall, and touch it, they can get a better understanding,” said Armsrong.
While visiting, Armstong sought out a young man from Randolph, NY.
“He was in the peace corps, I didn’t know him personally, but I knew his family, and I’m going to go get his name,” said Armstong.
For Tessey, he plans to honor fellow soldiers who never returned home, like a Sergeant he was close too.
“The barbed wire fences were rigged with tin cans and stuff so you could hear the Viet Cong coming over the fence, and the Sergeant was down on the other side of the LZ, and I got word he had been killed,” recalled Tessey. “That night, there was a lot of casualties.”
In the end, the Purple Heart recipient is proud of his service, defending freedom abroad.
“I don’t think there is a Vietnam Veteran that wants anybody’s sympathy, that’s not the reason we do things,” said Tessey. “We do it because we are proud of what we did, American may not have been proud of us, but we were proud of ourselves are we still are proud.”
This Memorial Day, both men have a simple ask.
“I wonder how many Americans on Memorial Day actually take a minute to remember all those people died, the families that are suffering now from death and war,” furthered Tessey. “Go ahead, have your hotdogs and everything else, but on Memorial Day take some time to remember the Veterans who had served and lost their lives.”
Their trip to the Wall the Heals in Erie, Pa. was coordinated by the Joseph P. Dwyer Peer to Peer Program, a group under the direction of Cindy Reidy, to empower veterans and their family members to find passion, purpose and hope as they transition from military to civilian life.
The Wall that Heals opens Friday at the Zem Zem Shrine Club, 2525 W. 38th St., Erie, PA , and runs through Monday at 2 p.m.