Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

June 17, 2012

VFW commander wants to find Vietnam War friends

GOSHEN — Here inside VFW Post 985 on a sun-splashed Wednesday afternoon a handful of local military veterans sip their beers, puff their cigarettes and bust each other’s chops.

The bartender, who knows all her customers by name, hears a song she likes on the radio and turns up the volume on Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.” More wisecracking ensues.

As the clock hits 3 p.m. out comes the poker chips and on goes the overhead lights as a small group splinters from the bar and takes up residence at a nearby card table.

Before long Richard Clark Sr. strolls into the bar and orders a beer. The 61-year-old Goshen native has two more meetings left in his one-year elected tenure as commander of the post. His official last day in charge was Saturday.

“It’s a lot of hours,” Clark said of his position before taking a sip from his can of Coors Light. “But we have so many great volunteers that keep this place running. If it wasn’t for our volunteers nothing would get done around here.”

Clark lights a cigarette and sits back in his chair. He’s wearing a sleeveless shirt that shows off his tan arms and tattoos. On his right bicep are the letters U.S.A. Above it is an eagle head.

“Why an eagle?” he is asked.

“Freedom,” he responds. “In the U.S.A. an eagle means freedom. That’s what we fought for.”

Selected

Clark was born in Goshen in July 1950, graduated from Warsaw Community High School in June 1969 and married his sweetheart, Barbara, in March of 1970. Six weeks later he got a letter from Uncle Sam.

“It said, ‘Your friends and neighbors have selected you to be drafted,’” Clark remembered. “I pretty much knew it was just a matter of time. My (draft) number was 53 or something like that.

“Our first two years of marriage we couldn’t argue because I was in the military.”

Clark chose to enter the Army, but now says he wished he had joined the Air Force. He was shipped off to Fort Campbell, Ky., for basic training, which he claims “was kind of fun.”

From there Clark was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., for Advanced Individual Training, where he was trained to drive heavy-duty vehicles. Word had it that Clark’s company was going to be stationed in Hawaii. But orders changed and he instead got a ticket to Vietnam.

“My wife cried and cried when I told her,” Clark said. “She said ‘You’re going to get killed.’ I was like, “Well, duh!’”

When Clark’s father dropped him off at the airport following a 15-day leave, he said, “There’s a bullet over there with your name on it.”

“I was like, ‘Thanks, Dad,” Clark said with a smile.

‘A bullet’

A mechanic by trade, Clark was assigned to the 215th maintenance battalion of the first cavalry division. He worked out of a tech supply depot near the city of Binho.

“It was like a great big NAPA store,” Clark said. “Only it was outside.”

One day Clark was driving a large fork lift. He kept hearing pings around him. Finally, someone yelled at him to get off the vehicle. A sniper was firing at him. The pings were bullets ricocheting off the fork lift.

In order to avoid drinking the water in Vietnam, Clark usually drank beer instead. He had a metal cooler fastened to his fork lift filled with cans of beer.

“When I went back to the fork lift,” Clark said, “that (sniper) had shot up all but one of my beers.”

Clark’s tour lasted 11 months. Like many Vietnam veterans, his return to the United States did not include a warm welcome. It was his family, he said, that was and that has always been, his main supporters.

He also reminded his father what he had said to him before he left.

“I told him,” Clark said, “that (the Vietnamese) didn’t know how to spell my last name.”

Places to go

Richard and Barbara Clark have now been married for 42 years and have three children and a grandson. After his deployment Clark went to work in the local trailer factories and eventually caught on as a mechanic for the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Department. He retired from there in 2001 after 21 years of service. He has a gold badge in his wallet to prove it.

Clark currently runs a fork lift at Royal Cargo Trailers out of Middlebury, but plans on retiring from there in December.

With his work and VFW responsibilities behind him, Clark said he wants to turn to the open road in front of him.

“We have a 26-foot camper and a 2008 Dodge remodel we’re going to clean up; then we’re going to see the country I fought for,” Clark said. “I’ve never been to Washington D.C., I’ve never seen The Wall.”

“The Wall,” is the National Vietnam Memorial at the National Mall. It has more than 58,000 names on it of U.S. servicemen who died in that conflict.

But that’s just one destination. Clark has others in mind.

“I have this address book I haven’t looked at in 40 years,” he said. “There are some old friends from Vietnam in there. I’d like to go to their towns and see if they’re still around.”

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