By Kari Hawkins, USAG Redstone March 26, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- Wherever he goes, Warren Harmon carries with him the Vietnam War.
The license tag on his SUV recognizes his status as a Vietnam veteran. So, too, does the hat and vest that he often wears when he goes out in public.
But that war -- now 50 years old -- is also carried in Harmon's thoughts and memories, in the activities that fill his retirement life and in his motivation to show other Vietnam veterans that their service is appreciated today more than ever before.
Because of Harmon and a group of fellow Vietnam veterans, Huntsville now has an active chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association. With 215 members, Chapter 1067 has become Alabama's largest VVA chapter and one of the nation's most significant chapters in the three years it has been established.
"We started in 2012 with 43 members. Of the 215 we have today, 159 are lifetime members," Harmon said. "With 50,000 to 60,000 veterans in the North Alabama area, we want to grow to be the largest VVA chapter in the nation."
Because of Harmon and that same group of veterans, Huntsville, Madison and Madison County will once again honor their Vietnam veterans at the third annual Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event Saturday with the theme "A Time for Healing." The event includes a meet-and-greet from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and a ceremony at 1 p.m. that will include guest speaker state Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, Team Redstone leader Lt. Gen. David Mann and the Army Materiel Command Band.
The Welcome Home event along with community and educational activities coordinated by its members is making the Huntsville VVA chapter one of the most active military-connected groups in the community.
"A lot of us never admit we are Vietnam veterans because of the way we were treated when we came home," Harmon said.
"We are trying to get these veterans to see that the perception of the public has changed. When I wear my Vietnam hat, people will stop and thank me for my service. That never happened in those years after the war. Sometimes, when I'm parked at the mall or somewhere public like that, people will see my Vietnam veteran plate and put thank you notes on my windshield."
The local VVA chapter started from an idea that came up among Harmon and fellow veterans during a veteran counseling session at The Vet Center. They all agreed that there was a need for a Welcome Home event for Vietnam veterans to help right the wrongs of the past.
"We started this chapter in January 2012 for this event," Harmon said. "We quickly got the support of the mayors and the county commission chairman, and they designated March 29 as Vietnam veterans day. Then, we went to Gov. (Robert) Bentley, and he designated it as Vietnam veterans day throughout the entire state."
The local VVA chose March 29 as the day to honor Vietnam veterans because it is the date when the last major combat brigade came out of Vietnam in 1973, and when the Military Advisory Command-Vietnam closed its doors. It is a date that is recognized as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day across Alabama. Each year, the governor signs a resolution giving the date its official designation. Other events for Vietnam veterans are held on this date across the state.
The local event is also part of the nation's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. In 2012, President Barack Obama proclaimed May 28, 2012 through Nov. 11, 2025 as the Commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War, during which events, such as the Chapter 1067's Welcome Home event, are held as part of that commemoration and can be found listed at www.vietnamwar50th.com. In his proclamation, the president stated that it is "never too late to pay tribute to the men and women who answered the call of duty with courage and valor," and that the commemoration is "a 13-year program to honor and give thanks to a generation of proud Americans who saw our country through one of the most challenging missions we have ever faced."
Harmon is among that generation of proud Americans. He joined the Marines in 1959 after graduating from high school in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"I was only 17, so my dad (who had served in the Navy during World War II) had to sign the papers for me to join. He wouldn't sign, and I argued with him five or six months. I told my dad right before my birthday that I was going to sign up after I turned 18 on Nov. 8. On Nov. 5, he said 'I'll sign those papers now.' He knew I wasn't going to let it go," Harmon recalled.
"Two days after my birthday I was in Nashville taking the oath and signing up. I was joining the Marines to see the world. My dad knew that any war that came along I would be in it."
And his dad was right.
Harmon fought in Vietnam during two tours, one as a Marine and another as a Soldier. His 11-year Marine career was in ground combat intelligence, with instruction in intelligence analysis and the Vietnamese language before his 1968-69 tour in the war zone.
"Because I was military intelligence, I ended up on the ground with infantry," he said.
He served as a chief scout and interpreter for the Marines 3rd Battalion, 3rd Regiment, 3rd Division. He led a unit of dog handlers, snipers and Kit Carson Scouts, which were North Vietnamese soldiers or Viet Cong who were captured and enscripted to work as interpreters and scouts for U.S. troops.
"We could see the North Vietnamese Army raise and lower their flag over the demilitarized zone. That's how close we were," Harmon said. "I replaced someone who got killed. As soon as I got to Alpha 3 Fire Support Base, I went on a three-day mission so that I could get 'acclimated.'"
He often was called on to search the bodies of dead North Vietnamese for any types of intelligence that could work in the favor of the U.S. war effort. He also translated for the Marines, often moving between different infantry companies when called on to provide assistance.
There were many close calls during the intelligence reconnaissance missions that filled Harmon's 10 months in the jungles of Nam. During one such close call in a remote area of the jungle, Harmon was taken off a return helicopter flight at the last minute to make room for an officer who had to travel with the unit's leadership.
"When that helicopter took off, I was so angry and I was cussing up a storm," he said. "But, 200 feet up, the helicopter got hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) and then it exploded into a fireball with the blades going everywhere. No one survived.
"I fell to my knees and thanked God because that could have been me in that helicopter, instead of the lieutenant colonel battalion commander who took my seat away from me."
Despite his excellence in combat, and his promotion to gunnery sergeant while in Vietnam, Harmon was not able to fulfill his dream of being selected to become a warrant officer in the Marines. In 1969, after three disappointments in not being selected, Harmon decided to transfer to the Army, where he entered as a warrant officer.
"I was always in love with the Marine Corps and I never really got over that love. Once I got to the Army, I realized the discipline wasn't the same. The Army had a different standard," he said.
Again, in 1971-72, he served in Vietnam, this time coordinating reconnaissance and intelligence missions for the 23rd Infantry Division and then the 196th Light Infantry Brigade.
Harmon excelled in his Army career, making it all the way to chief warrant officer 4 in 20 years of Army service. In 1975, he transferred from military intelligence to quartermaster, where he served for 15 years before retiring on Jan. 31, 1990, with more than 32 years of military service.
"I was 48 years old when I retired and I had PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). But I never knew it. They didn?'t call it PTSD back then. It was combat stress and depression. But I always knew I wasn't right. I was ill tempered all the time. I had no close friends. I didn't sleep well and I always had nightmares about Vietnam," he said.
His first marriage ended in divorce after 25 years. But Harmon remarried in 1987 during his last assignment, which brought him to Redstone Arsenal. He and his second wife met while employed by the Test Measurement and Diagnostics Equipment lab.
After his retirement, Harmon interviewed for several civilian jobs, and even got some job offers. But he found himself mired in the no-man?'s land between the military and the civilian worlds.
"Even though I had all these qualifications, I would get cold feet. I would lose confidence. So, I didn?'t take any offers, and I didn?'t work for five years," he said.
At age 53, Harmon decided to try long distance truck driving. That lasted about a year. He then settled into a heavy equipment operator and truck driving job with a Hartselle construction company until a second retirement.
In 2009, Harmon started getting medical treatment for his PTSD and began going to group counseling at The Vet Center. Now 72 and living with his wife, Anne Ridgeway Harmon, in Decatur, Harmon knows the keys to fighting the demons of the Vietnam War are to stay busy, active and involved.
"I hope all Vietnam veterans can find a way to have a better quality of life for themselves and their families," he said. "Because of PTSD and the way they feel, it's best to keep busy in ways that keeps their mind off of things. Being involved in all these community activities can really help to overcome some of those bad feelings."
When talking to other Vietnam veterans, Harmon often sees his feelings and experiences reflected back to him through their stories.
"A lot of these guys will say when they came back to the U.S., that people spat on them and called them dogs. They were treated so bad in their communities. So, how Vietnam veterans feel about our chapter, the Welcome Home and the other things we're doing is kind of mixed," he said.
"A lot of them are still in that depressed state. They more or less hold a grudge about how they were treated when they got back and when they went to the VA to get benefits. Many of us suffer from PTSD. These veterans don't socialize, they don't have any close friends and they aren't in therapy. And then, there are a lot of them who will say 'I don't want to join an organization that doesn't do anything and that has boring meetings.' Our chapter wants to help them by giving them a way to get out and meet people, and to do something. And I can assure them this is not going to be an organization that doesn't do anything."
Besides the Welcome Home event, the local VVA is also active in the Memorial Day Program at Maple Hill Cemetery, the Veterans Day Parade and a host of other patriotic activities. They meet once a month on the second Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Civitan's Care Building (the former Knights of Columbus) on Leeman Ferry, where they come together to discuss veterans issues.
Harmon was "drafted" by fellow Vietnam veterans to serve as the local chapter's president.
"As a retired chief warrant officer 4, I was the one with senior military rank, and they told me I was the president," he said.
"But rank doesn?'t matter as far as this organization goes. And we also do not make a distinction between combat veterans and Vietnam era veterans (those who served during Vietnam but didn?'t go into combat). We are all the same when it comes to serving our country."
Editor's note: Vietnam veterans who would like to join the local VVA Chapter 1067 should call Chapter 1067 first vice president and membership chairman Richard Knight at 722-3027. To join, veterans need a copy of their DD214. Knight can provide interested veterans with information about special membership offers. Veterans who are already a member of VVA can transfer their membership to Chapter 1067.