It was many years before Bob Whiteford visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“That was intentional,” the Vietnam veteran said. “It’s a very emotional thing.”
He has been twice to The Wall which lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The retired command sergeant major, who served in Vietnam from late 1970 until early 1972, shared his thoughts on this nation’s observance of Memorial Day, May 30.
“I think it’s great,” Whiteford said of the solemn holiday. “I think it’s a good time for the country to pause and say thanks for those guys who paid the ultimate sacrifice.”
Whiteford was a field artillery adviser in Advisory Team 75, under the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, from December 1970 until February 1972. The eight-member artillery team would travel to the various fire bases within its region to advise the South Vietnamese army.
“We either went by vehicle, jeep, helicopter or Navy boat,” Whiteford recalled. “What an adventure.”
Some of the six provinces within their region were more dangerous than others. Whiteford, with 10 years of service at the time, had been overseas before – to Korea and Germany – but didn’t speak Vietnamese. “They’d get complacent,” he said. “We tried to help them out.”
During this “rather unique” tour, Whiteford learned the true meaning of Rations Not Available. “We lived on a crazy diet of pinto beans and boiled eggs,” he said laughing.
And there were the half-dozen or so close calls he had from Viet Cong mortar attacks. Fortunately, the only injuries he had were the bruises from a jeep accident in mid-1971. “I looked like I’d been hit by (Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker) Terrell Suggs,” the Pittsburgh native quipped.
Part 372 in series
After his tour was extended a couple of times, Whiteford returned to the U.S. in early 1972 as American troops were beginning to withdraw from Vietnam. His wife had kept their live Christmas tree up until his return.
He remembered hearing snide remarks from antiwar protesters in the San Francisco airport. “I tried not to let stuff like that bother me,” he said.
Whiteford, 79, joined the Army in July 1961 and went on to serve 30 years in field artillery. He recalled that he was volunteered for the draft by an aunt, who happened to work for the draft board. He initially planned to serve his two years and then get out. “It got so darn good I said ‘Man, I’m staying,’” he said.
He retired in May 1991 as the command sergeant major of the 6th Army at the Presidio of San Francisco where he was responsible for 112,000 Soldiers in the 12 Western states, including active duty, National Guard and Reserve. He served as command sergeant major for the then Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal from 1985-87. Whiteford worked for Northrop Grumman as program manager for the Redstone Arsenal logistics contract until he retired in 2006.
For his Vietnam service, he received the Meritorious Service Medal, three Air Medals and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
He is a life member the Association of the U.S. Army and the Vietnam Veterans Association of America, Huntsville Chapter 1067. He served on the board of AUSA’s Redstone-Huntsville Chapter from 1985-2020. Whiteford belongs to the Protestant congregation at Bicentennial Chapel.
He and his wife of 59 years, Marilyn, his childhood sweetheart from Pittsburgh, have three daughters, two granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.
“I think it’s very appropriate,” Whiteford said of this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War. “Over 3 million Americans served in Vietnam. Some might’ve gone to Canada or whatever but 3 million stepped forward and said I’d go. Some 58,000-plus never came back. I think it’s well-fitting that our nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
“It’s just America at its finest. We had a draft at the time. Guys stepped forward and went to Vietnam and some made the ultimate sacrifice while they were there. When America needs its military to step forward, American men and women are gladly stepping forward to take responsibility for our defense.”
Editor’s note: This is the 372nd in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War