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Guest Column: Soldiers’ stories — Vietnam vets share their experiences as Memorial Day approaches

May 20, 2014
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By John “Radio” Russell Ghrist

Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I remember my father Glenn by interviewing several soldiers for a newspaper article and radio program. Dad served in World War II, arrived on the beaches of Normandy in Europe on D-6, and was an Army medic. He had a distinctive career in the military, something I found out about later in his life when I finally got to know him better. These stories and programs are meant to honor my dad and those like him who have served our country. The soldiers get the opportunity to speak out during these holiday features, and we then can better appreciate what they did for us and our country.

On each of these two military days, Stanley and Yolanda Weisensel, owners and operators of Rockford’s Camp Grant Museum and Command Post Restaurant, arrange for us to interview area soldiers about their war experiences. The soldiers are freely given time to speak about what they saw during their service years and how it affects them today. Many of these past military members have PTSD issues, flashbacks and other war-related problems. We are grateful for their time, and listen patiently to their sometimes painful comments of what they remember.

On this year’s Memorial Day program, we interviewed three area Vietnam soldiers. Richard Jenkins served three tours in Vietnam and spent more than 30 years in the Army as an airborne ranger and member of the National Guard. He once bunked with Sgt. Barry Sadler, who wrote “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a timely No. 1 tune about the Vietnam War in 1966. Other guests were Army veteran Mark Workman, who fought in the jungles of Vietnam, and Jim Schrader, who served in the Navy aboard the USS New Jersey.

Camp Grant Museum’s Yolanda Weisensel also participated in the conversations. Various area military groups often hold their meetings at the museum. The building was constructed during the 1930s, and was the camp’s original firehouse and induction and muster out center.

Richard Jenkins is a career soldier, having enlisted in the Army at age 18. In 1962, he was being trained to fight the enemy VC forces in the jungles of Okinawa with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In 1965-1967, he was a paratrooper in Vietnam, and had graduated third in his class in ranger school. In 1980, Richard joined the National Guard in Rockford after leaving his family’s farm in Wisconsin. His unit was on standby for Kuwait. Later, Jenkins worked as a prison guard for 15 years in Alabama. The vest he wears is decorated with numerous military honors.

Mark Workman, originally from Effingham, Ill., served in Vietnam from 1968-69 in the Third Battalion 506 Infantry 101st Airborne. Mark also received his army training at Fort Leonard Wood, as well as at Fort Gordon and Fort Benning for jump school. He has a degree in English from Illinois State University. Instead of becoming a teacher, Mark volunteered for the draft.

Jim Schrader enlisted in the Navy from high school in 1967 and received his first training at Great Lakes before he was sent to classes in St. Louis, San Diego and Philadelphia. Later, he was put on board the USS New Jersey with 1,500 men to practice naval maneuvers, arriving in Vietnam in 1968. None of the men knew one another until they returned to Rockford. During the interviews, the session was stopped a couple of times while the men regained their composure. The memories of the Vietnam War are still real to these dedicated soldiers.

First, the men recalled their basic training and boot camp experiences. Richard Jenkins remembered walking uphill to the firing range at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.: “When you walked back, it was still uphill,” he said. The barracks were old cold buildings, and anyone on detention would be responsible for stoking the coal furnace to keep the other soldiers warm all night. Other camps had similar poor conditions.

Jim Schrader recalls that boot camp consisted of school, athletics and two weeks of mess hall duty. “The petty officers would repeatedly send the new recruits on erroneous errands for buckets of blue steam or similar non-existent items as jokes,” he said. The humorous practice was later discontinued as a time-saving measure. Schrader was once reprimanded by an MP for talking to another man in the mess hall who had a large “P” on his back. The “P” was for prisoner, and enlisted men were prohibited to speak with those in detention.

Mark Workman was also sent to Fort Leonard Wood, where some newer barracks shielded soldiers from the daily snow and rain storms. He remembers getting his first very short haircut and taking a test to become a helicopter pilot, knowing that he would not pass. Some officer called him the next day and told him that they not only did not want Mark as a helicopter pilot, but not even flying in one. However, six months later, he was being transported by chopper over Vietnam.

The men then recalled their military experiences. Richard Jenkins said Vietnam was what he expected and had learned about in school. His unit was often involved in ambushes and other fighting. He remembered a battle one day when 49 were killed and 150 wounded. Hand-to-hand combat took place. “You had to use your knife or be killed,” he said. “You always had to always be on guard. I lost a lieutenant during one of those battles.”

Mark Workman added: “The worst thing is thinking about the battles the next day and supposing that we could have been one of those in body bags. It is a beautiful country, but very dangerous.” He recalled trying to talk with villagers, some of whom became the enemy at night. “If you’re a mama’s boy, you change quickly in the heat of battle, because you are now an intricate part of a military group on a mission,” he added.

Jim Schrader spent many sleepless nights fighting the VC aboard the USS New Jersey. This time, the ship fired more rounds at the enemy than it previously did during World War II and Korea combined.

We were constantly trying to protect our military brothers and sisters from having their landing zones overrun by the VC,” Jim remembered. “We never asked questions. We were told what to do, and did it. When the alarm went off for general quarters, we did our jobs. I was proud to be a part of the world’s most decorated battleship, the USS New Jersey.”

While the men were gone, they missed being home, traveling around, eating ice cream and enjoying air conditioners. Jim Schrader remembers seeing the Bob Hope Show on his ship on Christmas of 1968. He also went out to lunch with one of the dancers. “It was good to sit across from a beautiful woman instead of another ugly sailor,” Jim joked. Richard Jenkins stated that he was so far away from the stage at one of Hope’s programs that all he saw was the back of the heads of Hope and actress Ann-Margaret. His unit was on patrol that night battling snipers. Some of the guys even got hugs from Ann-Margaret. Mark Workman’s entertainment was listening to the Armed Forces Network on portable radios. When he came back in 1969, he refused to talk about the war, and says that many people do not know that he was even in Vietnam. “I wasn’t ashamed of it, it just was something that I did not want to discuss or answer any stupid questions about, like did I see anyone get killed? That’s my business.”

Yolanda Weisensel said the men who come to meetings or to dine at the restaurant do not openly speak about their war experiences. They instead spend their time trying to help returning soldiers or visit the Vet Center or Carpenter’s Place. There is a special Vietnam group open to everyone that meets on Thursday mornings at the Command Post Restaurant. All three of the men are members of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Richard Jenkins added: “Our group now includes about 45 people, and we talk amongst ourselves, but the general public could never understand what we went through, but we survived.”

The Veterans Administration has helped the trio with various services and medications. The men are very patriotic, and also support the local VFW. Jim Schrader has served in the honor guard for more than 170 funerals for veterans each year, and participates in annual Veterans Day observances for local VFW Post 9759. This includes visiting service personnel in care centers and conducting services at the Field of Honor in Loves Park. All three men expressed concerns that local veterans organizations continue in operations and that younger members also join to keep them going.

Mark Workman, appearing for a second time on the show, is also a VVA member, and when military planes used to arrive at the Rockford airport, he was part of a welcoming committee that provided supplies to the men and women personnel.

Richard Jenkins also greeted some 20,000 military people at the airport with gifts and is a local VVA and VFW member. “We would shake hands with all of them and do our very best to make sure that they were welcomed,” Jenkins said. He remembers when he returned from Vietnam and received jeers instead of thanks for his service.

All three men mentioned the terrible treatment they received after being discharged from the service. They were busy fighting and were seldom informed about the violent demonstrations against the war back home. Jenkins said he had to hide his uniform and was humiliated by protesters. The others said they were spat upon, cursed at and called “baby killers.”

Jim Schader added: “I did not quite understand why we were asked to do something, and we did what we were asked and returned with all of our body parts, and no one acknowledged the fact that we did anything.”

The men admitted there was little or no welcome when they returned from military service. Schrader, in uniform, scuffled with a protester in Chicago while he attempted to leave the airport parking lot with his family.

All three men have PTSD issues and other related war injuries and concerns. They were also sprayed with Agent Orange. The men said they are very patriotic, but have concerns about the rest of the country. The men are all retired and dealing with their disabilities. Jim Schrader plays an occasional round of golf. All three suggested that military service is a great technical experience, but it’s not for everyone. Richard Jenkins added with a bit of humor, “If you don’t want to dig foxholes, join the Air Force or the Navy.”

From the interviews, two different radio programs will be created. One show with the conversations only will air several times during the month of May on Rockford’s community radio station, WTPB LP 99.3 FM. This station is operated by Third Presbyterian Church. Listeners will hear the actual conversations of these men describing their experiences during the Vietnam War.

Excerpts of the interviews will be combined with patriotic music and will air on College of DuPage’s WDCB 90.9 FM in the Chicago area, and from 5 to 7 p.m., May 24, on our Midwest Ballroom radio show. The station also streams its signal worldwide on the Internet at wdcb.org. This is a voluntary big-band radio program that I have done for the past 14 years. It can be heard in the Rockford area at wdcb.org.

It is hoped that listeners will enjoy the interviews, music and realize the tremendous sacrifice these men and other members of the military have made to keep our country safe and free. We humbly thank them for their service to America!

The Memorial Show … Camp Grant … 60 minutes will air on WTPB LP 99.3 FM at the following times: 4 p.m., Friday, May 23; noon, Saturday, May 24; 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., Sunday, May 25; and 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., Monday, May 26.

Note: Readers are invited to dine at the Command Post Restaurant at 1004 Samuelson Road near the airport and visit the fine collection of war photos and artifacts at the Camp Grant Museum in the same building. The facility’s phone number is (815) 395-0678, or visit www.CanpGrantMuseum.org.

John Russell Ghrist is a Rockford resident.By John “Radio” Russell Ghrist

Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I remember my father Glenn by interviewing several soldiers for a newspaper article and radio program. Dad served in World War II, arrived on the beaches of Normandy in Europe on D-6, and was an Army medic. He had a distinctive career in the military, something I found out about later in his life when I finally got to know him better. These stories and programs are meant to honor my dad and those like him who have served our country. The soldiers get the opportunity to speak out during these holiday features, and we then can better appreciate what they did for us and our country.

On each of these two military days, Stanley and Yolanda Weisensel, owners and operators of Rockford’s Camp Grant Museum and Command Post Restaurant, arrange for us to interview area soldiers about their war experiences. The soldiers are freely given time to speak about what they saw during their service years and how it affects them today. Many of these past military members have PTSD issues, flashbacks and other war-related problems. We are grateful for their time, and listen patiently to their sometimes painful comments of what they remember.

On this year’s Memorial Day program, we interviewed three area Vietnam soldiers. Richard Jenkins served three tours in Vietnam and spent more than 30 years in the Army as an airborne ranger and member of the National Guard. He once bunked with Sgt. Barry Sadler, who wrote “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a timely No. 1 tune about the Vietnam War in 1966. Other guests were Army veteran Mark Workman, who fought in the jungles of Vietnam, and Jim Schrader, who served in the Navy aboard the USS New Jersey.

Camp Grant Museum’s Yolanda Weisensel also participated in the conversations. Various area military groups often hold their meetings at the museum. The building was constructed during the 1930s, and was the camp’s original firehouse and induction and muster out center.

Richard Jenkins is a career soldier, having enlisted in the Army at age 18. In 1962, he was being trained to fight the enemy VC forces in the jungles of Okinawa with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. In 1965-1967, he was a paratrooper in Vietnam, and had graduated third in his class in ranger school. In 1980, Richard joined the National Guard in Rockford after leaving his family’s farm in Wisconsin. His unit was on standby for Kuwait. Later, Jenkins worked as a prison guard for 15 years in Alabama. The vest he wears is decorated with numerous military honors.

Mark Workman, originally from Effingham, Ill., served in Vietnam from 1968-69 in the Third Battalion 506 Infantry 101st Airborne. Mark also received his army training at Fort Leonard Wood, as well as at Fort Gordon and Fort Benning for jump school. He has a degree in English from Illinois State University. Instead of becoming a teacher, Mark volunteered for the draft.

Jim Schrader enlisted in the Navy from high school in 1967 and received his first training at Great Lakes before he was sent to classes in St. Louis, San Diego and Philadelphia. Later, he was put on board the USS New Jersey with 1,500 men to practice naval maneuvers, arriving in Vietnam in 1968. None of the men knew one another until they returned to Rockford. During the interviews, the session was stopped a couple of times while the men regained their composure. The memories of the Vietnam War are still real to these dedicated soldiers.

First, the men recalled their basic training and boot camp experiences. Richard Jenkins remembered walking uphill to the firing range at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.: “When you walked back, it was still uphill,” he said. The barracks were old cold buildings, and anyone on detention would be responsible for stoking the coal furnace to keep the other soldiers warm all night. Other camps had similar poor conditions.

Jim Schrader recalls that boot camp consisted of school, athletics and two weeks of mess hall duty. “The petty officers would repeatedly send the new recruits on erroneous errands for buckets of blue steam or similar non-existent items as jokes,” he said. The humorous practice was later discontinued as a time-saving measure. Schrader was once reprimanded by an MP for talking to another man in the mess hall who had a large “P” on his back. The “P” was for prisoner, and enlisted men were prohibited to speak with those in detention.

Mark Workman was also sent to Fort Leonard Wood, where some newer barracks shielded soldiers from the daily snow and rain storms. He remembers getting his first very short haircut and taking a test to become a helicopter pilot, knowing that he would not pass. Some officer called him the next day and told him that they not only did not want Mark as a helicopter pilot, but not even flying in one. However, six months later, he was being transported by chopper over Vietnam.

The men then recalled their military experiences. Richard Jenkins said Vietnam was what he expected and had learned about in school. His unit was often involved in ambushes and other fighting. He remembered a battle one day when 49 were killed and 150 wounded. Hand-to-hand combat took place. “You had to use your knife or be killed,” he said. “You always had to always be on guard. I lost a lieutenant during one of those battles.”

Mark Workman added: “The worst thing is thinking about the battles the next day and supposing that we could have been one of those in body bags. It is a beautiful country, but very dangerous.” He recalled trying to talk with villagers, some of whom became the enemy at night. “If you’re a mama’s boy, you change quickly in the heat of battle, because you are now an intricate part of a military group on a mission,” he added.

Jim Schrader spent many sleepless nights fighting the VC aboard the USS New Jersey. This time, the ship fired more rounds at the enemy than it previously did during World War II and Korea combined.

We were constantly trying to protect our military brothers and sisters from having their landing zones overrun by the VC,” Jim remembered. “We never asked questions. We were told what to do, and did it. When the alarm went off for general quarters, we did our jobs. I was proud to be a part of the world’s most decorated battleship, the USS New Jersey.”

While the men were gone, they missed being home, traveling around, eating ice cream and enjoying air conditioners. Jim Schrader remembers seeing the Bob Hope Show on his ship on Christmas of 1968. He also went out to lunch with one of the dancers. “It was good to sit across from a beautiful woman instead of another ugly sailor,” Jim joked. Richard Jenkins stated that he was so far away from the stage at one of Hope’s programs that all he saw was the back of the heads of Hope and actress Ann-Margaret. His unit was on patrol that night battling snipers. Some of the guys even got hugs from Ann-Margaret. Mark Workman’s entertainment was listening to the Armed Forces Network on portable radios. When he came back in 1969, he refused to talk about the war, and says that many people do not know that he was even in Vietnam. “I wasn’t ashamed of it, it just was something that I did not want to discuss or answer any stupid questions about, like did I see anyone get killed? That’s my business.”

Yolanda Weisensel said the men who come to meetings or to dine at the restaurant do not openly speak about their war experiences. They instead spend their time trying to help returning soldiers or visit the Vet Center or Carpenter’s Place. There is a special Vietnam group open to everyone that meets on Thursday mornings at the Command Post Restaurant. All three of the men are members of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Richard Jenkins added: “Our group now includes about 45 people, and we talk amongst ourselves, but the general public could never understand what we went through, but we survived.”

The Veterans Administration has helped the trio with various services and medications. The men are very patriotic, and also support the local VFW. Jim Schrader has served in the honor guard for more than 170 funerals for veterans each year, and participates in annual Veterans Day observances for local VFW Post 9759. This includes visiting service personnel in care centers and conducting services at the Field of Honor in Loves Park. All three men expressed concerns that local veterans organizations continue in operations and that younger members also join to keep them going.

Mark Workman, appearing for a second time on the show, is also a VVA member, and when military planes used to arrive at the Rockford airport, he was part of a welcoming committee that provided supplies to the men and women personnel.

Richard Jenkins also greeted some 20,000 military people at the airport with gifts and is a local VVA and VFW member. “We would shake hands with all of them and do our very best to make sure that they were welcomed,” Jenkins said. He remembers when he returned from Vietnam and received jeers instead of thanks for his service.

All three men mentioned the terrible treatment they received after being discharged from the service. They were busy fighting and were seldom informed about the violent demonstrations against the war back home. Jenkins said he had to hide his uniform and was humiliated by protesters. The others said they were spat upon, cursed at and called “baby killers.”

Jim Schader added: “I did not quite understand why we were asked to do something, and we did what we were asked and returned with all of our body parts, and no one acknowledged the fact that we did anything.”

The men admitted there was little or no welcome when they returned from military service. Schrader, in uniform, scuffled with a protester in Chicago while he attempted to leave the airport parking lot with his family.

All three men have PTSD issues and other related war injuries and concerns. They were also sprayed with Agent Orange. The men said they are very patriotic, but have concerns about the rest of the country. The men are all retired and dealing with their disabilities. Jim Schrader plays an occasional round of golf. All three suggested that military service is a great technical experience, but it’s not for everyone. Richard Jenkins added with a bit of humor, “If you don’t want to dig foxholes, join the Air Force or the Navy.”

From the interviews, two different radio programs will be created. One show with the conversations only will air several times during the month of May on Rockford’s community radio station, WTPB LP 99.3 FM. This station is operated by Third Presbyterian Church. Listeners will hear the actual conversations of these men describing their experiences during the Vietnam War.

Excerpts of the interviews will be combined with patriotic music and will air on College of DuPage’s WDCB 90.9 FM in the Chicago area, and from 5 to 7 p.m., May 24, on our Midwest Ballroom radio show. The station also streams its signal worldwide on the Internet at wdcb.org. This is a voluntary big-band radio program that I have done for the past 14 years. It can be heard in the Rockford area at wdcb.org.

It is hoped that listeners will enjoy the interviews, music and realize the tremendous sacrifice these men and other members of the military have made to keep our country safe and free. We humbly thank them for their service to America!

The Memorial Show … Camp Grant … 60 minutes will air on WTPB LP 99.3 FM at the following times: 4 p.m., Friday, May 23; noon, Saturday, May 24; 8 a.m. and 10 p.m., Sunday, May 25; and 9 a.m. and 10 p.m., Monday, May 26.

Note: Readers are invited to dine at the Command Post Restaurant at 1004 Samuelson Road near the airport and visit the fine collection of war photos and artifacts at the Camp Grant Museum in the same building. The facility’s phone number is (815) 395-0678, or visit www.CanpGrantMuseum.org.

John Russell Ghrist is a Rockford resident.

From the May 21-27, 2014, issue

One Comment

  1. Thomas Lucken

    June 24, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    Many Korean DMZ veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, more then the B.S. token dates of 68 to 71.

    Government cover-up!!!! Admit to spraying DMZ, admit that the dioxins reside for decades. But refuse to admit, that soldiers rolled and dug in the at same very dirt till 1991.

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