40 years later, Vietnam veterans remember a sad day: The Fall of Saigon

From left, Vietnam veterans Pete Senft of Dover, Rick Lovekin of Wilmington and Woody Postle of Dover pose Wednesday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Park. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

From left, Vietnam veterans Pete Senft of Dover, Rick Lovekin of Wilmington and Woody Postle of Dover pose Wednesday afternoon at Veterans Memorial Park. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

DOVER — Forty years ago today, Vietnam veterans across the world easily will recall where they were when they heard the news of the Fall of Saigon.

“I was sitting in the living room of the house I still live in now and watching it on TV,” said veteran Rick Lovekin of Wilmington. “It was a sad sight but when I was in Vietnam, I wrote a letter in January of 1970 saying when the U.S. pulled out, Saigon would fall.”

Mr. Lovekin enlisted the year he graduated, 1968, after his cousin and best friend was killed in the war.

“I know it may have been crazy to think I could get revenge by coming face to face with the person who killed my cousin, but I felt compelled to go,” he said.

Peter Senft of Dover, who also had enlisted, said he too felt extreme sadness when hearing the news on April 30, 1975.

“It was anticlimactic. When I left, we were winning so it was sad when it ended. I was thinking how sad it was that 58,000 lives were wasted,” he said.

Mr. Senft enlisted after two years of college when his parents withdrew financial support for his education.

“The draft started and I had a feeling my number was going to come up early, so I enlisted in Army Intelligence and became a sergeant in about 10 months,” he said.

Another Dover native, Woody Postle, who joined the Marines, had been interested in war history, especially World War II (in which his father served) and the Korean War.

“I already had a job but decided to enlist and I signed up for two years,” he said.

On the ground

The three veterans all had different experiences in the war but were deployed between early 1969 through 1970.

Mr. Postle was the first of the three to arrive in Vietnam in February of 1969. He served in the northernmost military region, less than 6.5 miles from the demilitarized zone. He started as a rifleman and fought in the 10-day Battle of Hamburger Hill.

He recalled when he first landed in Vietnam in his new green uniform of seeing other American soldiers in brown, muddy gear.

“I learned really quick that the most important things we needed were food and water, and new clothes were near the bottom of the list,” he said. “And I think for the first two weeks, I barely slept at all. It was terrifying when we first got there.”

vietnamboxHe also remembered being on the move most of the time he was on the ground.

“It was tiring,” he said. “Our packs were sometimes up to 80 or 90 pounds and you carried them all day until you reached your destination. You’d then have to dig a hole, and be up a couple hours each night to keep watch and then wake back up the next day at 4:30 or 5 a.m.”

The early morning was the time action was most likely to happen, he said, but he and his comrades rarely knew when to expect it.

“There were hours and hours of sheer boredom punctuated by hours and hours of sheer terror,” Mr. Postle said. “You might have days of quiet and the next thing you know, the world is falling down.”

Next to arrive was Mr. Lovekin, in March 1969 for a one-year tour. He worked mostly on Huey and Cobra helicopters as a gunner and crew chief.

Over his year in Vietnam, Mr. Lovekin flew about 100 missions in total.

“I was doing some jobs I wasn’t expected to do in combat but there weren’t enough of us to cover everything that needed to be done,” he said.

Mr. Lovekin said his tour happened during a transitional period in the war because President Richard Nixon was trying to end the war, causing a shortage of boots on the ground.

“Everyone’s tour was one year long and we were all doing double duty because no one was coming to replace the men who were returning home,” Mr. Lovekin said.

He added that the Vietnam War was the first war on terror.

“Fighting was difficult because this was the first time it was hard to identify the enemy. They wore civilian clothes, about 30 percent of them were women, but still, it was our responsibility to step up because the locals weren’t experienced fighters and they were living their lives in fear,” he said.

Mr. Senft landed in Vietnam in June 1970 and served for a little more than 10 months.

About a month after arriving, he began fighting in the 23-day Battle of Fire Support Base Ripcord, the last major ground confrontation between the U.S. and North Vietnam.

His mission was to collect information to cut off supplies on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a path (mostly dirt roads) cutting through Laos and Cambodia that supplied North Vietnam.

“We took up helicopters to see what was going on and what we were really up against and were able to collect a lot of information,” he said.

Coming home

Unlike war veterans today, veterans of the Vietnam War didn’t receive a warm welcome when arriving back in the U.S. and weren’t provided the same post-war services as today.

vietnamquote“It was terrible, even my best friends talked down to me, and others acted disappointed and told me I should have gone to college instead of going to war,” Mr. Lovekin said.

Even though he had a wife and family waiting for him, things didn’t work out once he returned.

“I thought my wife would wait for me and welcome me home but she treated me differently and it soon led to divorce,” Mr. Lovekin said. “At the time I really blamed her, but now I can understand, I had changed from the war and when I came home, I wasn’t the same guy she had married.”

Mr. Lovekin returned from the war with what now would be labeled as post traumatic stress disorder but wasn’t given support and went untreated.

“I wanted to talk about it but no one wanted to listen so I withdrew into myself,” he said. “My friends and family thought they had heard everything on TV and didn’t want to hear it from me, too, and I thought if I just tried not to think about it, the thoughts would just go away but they never did.”

He remained unemployed for about a year after returning and developed a problem with alcohol.

“I can say my first year back was as horrific as the year I was in Vietnam,” he said.

Although Mr. Lovekin faced many obstacles when arriving home, hope rose from tragedy after a close friend died in a motorcycle accident.

“I was helping his wife out after he passed and we ended up falling in love and got married in 1971, and we started a family together, and now I say that she saved my life and she says the same about me,” he said.

Mr. Postle was able to transition back to civilian life a bit more seamlessly than Mr. Lovekin.

“No one was too bad to me in Delaware but on the way home, we had to come through California and it wasn’t enjoyable because there so much protesting,” Mr. Postle said.

He was also able to return to his former job with the Postal Service, but even though he made the transition back to working life, but like Mr. Lovekin, he had no one willing to discuss his war experience.

“There are still the little things you notice that stick with you like I still tuck my bootlaces in and I always pay close attention to detail, because in Vietnam, if you weren’t paying attention to the smallest details, someone could lose their life,” he said.

Mr. Senft said he didn’t get a negative homecoming but was treated with indifference.

“I’m originally from a conservative, Republican area so I didn’t get the hostile reception my brothers got, but it wasn’t warm either,” he said. “But it was also different for me because I remained in Military Intelligence until 1975, so I didn’t head straight into civilian life.”

He also keeps the lessons he learned from the military close to his heart when times get tough.

“I may think something is bad, but I know I got through Vietnam and nothing that’s going to happen to me now is going to be as bad as being at war in the jungle of South Vietnam,” he said.

Although the three were not treated ideally, they were treated better than some of their comrades who were spat upon by protesters, even veterans of other wars.

To stop future treatment of veterans, the Vietnam Veterans of America formed with the motto, “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

Speaking out

Even though veterans’ stories weren’t welcome upon their initial return, the public has been more willing to listen over the past two decades, so the three men have all spoken on the issue at schools, public meetings and panels.

All are now members of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 850 where they have the freedom to exchange stories with other men who have walked in their shoes.

Some veterans like Mr. Postle were able to use technology to get back in touch with those whom they hadn’t heard from since the war.

“When my son graduated high school, we bought him a computer for college and decided to buy one for ourselves too and around 1997, I was able to reconnect with people I served with,” Mr. Postle said. “I joined a 1,600-member group of Marines and then I joined the Vietnam Veterans of America in 2000.”

When Mr. Postle joined the VVA in 2000, there were about 35 members but over the past 15 years, membership has grown to more than 200.

Mr. Lovekin expressed the importance of veterans organizations.

“You never knew what was happening to your friends because people were always rotating in and out so you may have only served with one person for a month, they head home and you just never knew what happened to them,” Mr. Lovekin said.

“We didn’t work as a unit, we worked as a group of individuals. Even if we aren’t reuniting with the men we served with, it’s nice to have guys to talk to that understand.”

Mr. Lovekin, Mr. Postle and Mr. Senft will all be participating in a panel discussion tonight at Delaware State University on the first floor of the Bank of America building, accessible from College Road. The program begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public.

Reach staff writer Ashton Brown at abrown@newszap.com. Follow @AshtonReports on Twitter.

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