Retired army colonel Roger Hugh Donlon, 84, came home to Saugerties Thursday morning, July 19, wearing the Medal of Honor he was awarded by president Lyndon Johnson for heroism in Vietnam in 1964. In a clear voice, his hand shaking slightly, Donlon spoke of his “Saugerties homecoming” after he became the first American to be awarded the nation’s highest military honor in Vietnam.
Off to his right at Cantine Field was the newly erected movable Vietnam Wall with the names of more than 58,000 service members killed in the war. Introduced by Ulster County executive Mike Hein as a “true American hero,” Donlon was given a standing ovation by the more than 500 in attendance. He spoke little of the night attack against his Special Forces unit when two men were lost. Donlon suffered injuries.several times.
“There must have been 35,000 people in Saugerties to welcome me home,” he recalled of his earlier visit. Elderly people in the audience who might have been there nodded their heads. “That was early,” Donlon said. He briefly referenced the sharp turn of American opinion as the war escalated. Eventually, more than six million Americans served.
Hein, in a 15-minute address, spoke of “profound sadness” for those men and women killed in Vietnam, those missing in action, and those who suffered injuries and exposure to chemicals. He expressed “deep sadness” for the “disgraceful treatment” many of those service members received when they returned home.
The services at Cantine Field in near-perfect midsummer weather lasted about an hour. It opened promptly at the announced 11 a.m. start with a vintage 1967 Huey Kiowa Vietnam-era helicopter flyover. Attendees were given a 48-page commemorative booklet which featured photos and brief biographies of the 42 Ulster County residents killed n Vietnam.
It seemed no detail was overlooked during what Hein called a two-year planning process between county officials and veterans organizations. A large contingent of color guards from around the county were joined by uniformed police officers and volunteer firefighters, numbering close to 100 overall. Chairs were set up for Gold Star families who had lost loved ones in the war. A bell tolled the reading of the 42 killed in war.
The Hein administration, which had created a memorial at the county office building in Kingston honoring the several thousand local service members killed in all the nation’s wars, transported its Vietnam section for display in Saugerties. There was also a replica on display of the memorial to the women, mostly nurses, who served in the war.
Master of ceremonies Tom Andreassen (Vietnam’66-67) spoke to the lingering bitterness, even a half a century later, over the way the war was conducted and how some veterans were treated.
“We did good things for people there, but good deeds don’t sell newspapers. Our government lacked resolve. This was a stain on our country’s history. We Vietnam vets left our souls over there,” said the ex-Marine. Andreassen ‘s brother, musician Paul Luke Andreassen, performed a song he had written about Donlon’s heroism.
Tom Andreassen, a member of American Legion Riders who now lives in Greenville, said veterans were “deeply appreciative” of the county’s efforts in bringing the moving wall to Saugerties. Hundreds of individuals, businesses, and veterans organizations contributed to the $10,000 cost of the three-day wall appearance.
Even with moving speeches and impressive ceremonies, the wall, a five-eighths replica of the original wall in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1984, was the main attraction. The 300-foot wall carries the names of victims in chronological order. The wall rose from only about a foot high in depicting the earliest victims in the 1950s to a height of over six feet, declining to its original height with America’s involvement. Most of the soldiers, airmen and sailors were killed during a three-year period between 1968 and 1970. The war ended in a North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
“It was such a terrible waste of young lives,” a grandmother from Dutchess County said. “They could have taken another 58,000 lives and it would still have come out the same.”
The names were inscribed in white raised letters on the black surfaced wall. One can literally feel the names.
Volunteers were on hand to assist visitors. Two large ledgers resembling the old Manhattan phone book were manned by volunteers who guided people to places on the wall where they could view the names they sought. Rubbing material was available to trace names.
Bob Brink of Brink’s Road served two tours in Vietnam during the height of the war and came home unscathed. He had mixed emotions. “It was really very good,” he said of the ceremonies, “but in a way, it’s kind of sad, don’t you think?”
The wall was continuously on display for three days until closing services at dusk on Sunday night.