RUPERT — About two dozen of Mini-Cassia’s 400 known Vietnam War veterans gathered Monday at the Minidoka County Senior Center for a dinner held in their honor on National Vietnam War Veterans Day.
March 29, 1973, was the day the last U.S. combat troops departed Vietnam at the war’s end. On or around the same day Hanoi released the last of its acknowledged prisoners of war.
The gathering was kept small this year due to the coronavirus, said Mini-Cassia Veterans Service Officer Chuck Driscoll.
The veterans shared stories and a few laughs and were each given a certificate and a pin. Drawings were held for prizes.
Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson attended the dinner and told the veterans their service was not in vain.
He also encouraged people to come together in a bipartisan way and try to understand each other’s positions after a year where people have been isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dean Searle said the one year he spent in Vietnam during his 12 year U.S. Army career left him a changed man.
“I tried to stay because it changed me,” Searle said. “I knew I wouldn’t fit in when I came home, and I still don’t fit in.”
Searle who trained as an engineer was “thrown” into transportation and moved equipment across the country because there was no need for engineers where he was sent.
After he left Vietnam he continued to serve in the military until he was medically retired in 1983.
No matter what capacity the Vietnam War veterans served in, he said, they all feel a connection.
“We’re family,” he said, and whether the veterans served in combat, as medics or as cooks, the war changed them all and it’s something they share.
Minidoka County Coroner Lucky Bourn served in the U.S. Army as a military policeman stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado.
“For many of us serving at the time we felt proud to do it,” Bourn said. A lot of the veterans were drafted and had no choice.
Paul Henscheid served four years in the U.S. Air Force as a computer repairman.
“Computers back then took up more space than there is in this room,” he said pulling out his iPhone. His cellphone, he said, can do more now than the large computers could that he worked on back then.
Henscheid served stateside and did a tour in Alaska where the medevac flights came in. Many of the wounded were ambulatory, he said, but others came in on stretchers, and the reality was grim.
“It still gets to me and brings tears to my eyes when I think about it,” he said.
George Sherblom spent four years in the U.S. Navy and drove watercraft up and down rivers in Vietnam.
Sherblom remembers when he came back to the U.S. that people gave him “bad looks” and didn’t always want to associate with him.
“You run into that still,” he said.
Veteran George Maas, who spent four years in the U.S. Navy as a cook said he also experienced disrespect when he returned to the states.
“I had some kids run me out of Burley,” he said.
Maas said he feels proud to have served his country and he now teaches proper handling of the U.S. flag to Minidoka County fifth graders.
Coming together for the dinner, he said, is all about the camaraderie.
“A lot of times you only see people at funerals and our generation is going fast,” Maas said. “There are not that many of us left.”
Simpson said there are 160,000 veterans in Idaho, and 40 percent of them are Vietnam War veterans.