Lincoln Heights Vietnam Veterans reflect on service, sacrifices
Navy Vietnam veteran Richard Headen stands by a flagpole at Lincoln Heights City Hall where the names of five men are on a war memorial. He went to school with all of them.
"George Smith, we called Skippy. [He died] May of '68. Donald, we called him Sugar Bear Palmore. May of 1968. Him and Skippy, George Thomas, went to service on a buddy-buddy plan. They got killed a week apart," he said, reading off some of the names.
Headen was drafted in 1968 but got his notice a few months later in California when the FBI delivered it. There was a 30-day wait before he could be admitted to the Army and to avoid the war, he joined the Navy instead.
"Faith is faith because I ended up in Vietnam," he said.
He served for more than three and a half years and had a few close calls.
"I'll never forget it as long as I'm on God's green earth. August 25, I had less than three weeks in Vietnam, and I was at Cam Ranh Bay," he said. "And they blew up the ammo dock and I just seen my life flashing in front of my face because I just knew it was gonna be the end."
It wasn't, though. He did get a concussion and busted his eardrum. He also broke his ankle while in the service. But he made it home. Years later, he visited the Vietnam memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
"They have paper where you could take a pencil and stencil the name. And when I did that I just broke out crying. And you can actually see a reflection of you on the wall," he said. "And I really felt that I might not be coming home when I went to Vietnam, and just, that made me be thankful and grateful that I was still here."
'You take your chances'
He says someone told him during his visit that Lincoln Heights had the largest number of people drafted into the war per capita. But Education Director at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Callie Wright says there's no way to confirm that. Records about the draft just aren't very well kept by any one organization.
But Headen says even if that data point is wrong, a lot of his friends – poor Black kids from a poor Black neighborhood – were drafted. One is 74-year-old Wilbur Daniels Powell, who was drafted into the Army in 1968 when he was a 20-year-old employee at GE.
"Less than six months later, I was in Vietnam," he said. "They give you the training and whatnot, but we could have used a little more training."
Powell was a surveyor, sitting in a tower for six-hour shifts, finding the coordinates of where gunfire was coming from. He says he felt like a sitting duck and saw several with the same job get killed by rockets.
"So that's the predicament they put you in... it was either go jail, or go to Vietnam, take your chances," he said.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's Callie Wright says by the late 1960s, the draft had quotas to make it more equitable. But it was an imperfect system. Those with enough money or connections were more likely to know someone who could write bogus medical and religious exemptions or have the means to flee to Canada.
But neither Headen nor Powell could and they still carry the weight of the war with them to this day.
Headen knows several veterans who've died from complications due to Agent Orange. And he suspects nodules in his lungs are linked to the chemical, though the VA has blamed his smoking. He says his life began to unravel about 10 years ago and doctors eventually realized it was due to his untreated PTSD.
"I'm one of the lucky ones. I see a therapist every two weeks and I see a psychiatrist once a month for Vietnam, what things that happened to me in Vietnam, what I saw, what I did. And it wasn't pretty," he said.
'Why was I lucky?'
His friend Powell has also been diagnosed with PTSD.
"I think about it, and think about my friends. I could have been one of them," he said through tears. "Why was I lucky? Why am I blessed? It's meant to be."
He still has nightmares and it's an ongoing process for him to learn to have fewer outbursts and, as he says, be less volatile toward others. He wants to live a better, more blessed life.
After the war ended, Vietnam veterans were ostracized from communities. Headen didn't talk about his service for decades. But as time passed, Vietnam vets have been given more recognition for their sacrifices.
Next year marks 40 years since the construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. For more information on a traveling exhibit of the wall, visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website.