Veterans Day Special: From Vietnam to Southwest Asia

370

The year was 1967.

Marko Milakovich
As a young officer, Marko Milakovich served in the Vietnam War. Today the veteran continues serving his country as a communications engineer with the 379th Airlift Wing based in Southwest Asia.

1st Lt. Marko Milakovich stood on the side of Budda Mountain, about 10 miles from Quang Nhia in South Vietnam. The 25-year-old was on a site survey had a weapons carrier and six Army body guards for safety. As he stood on the mountainside, leaflets fluttered to the ground around him. Dropped from U.S. helicopters, the leaflets offered the enemy safe surrender passes and rewards for turning in weapons. Four decades later, this image remains etched in the veteran’s mind.

“After I finished the site survey I returned to the air strip at Quang Nhia and waited for the first available airplane to fly me out,” recalled the Airman, who was assigned to the 1st Mobile Communications Group. “I talked a C-47 pilot into giving me a ride. At first he was reluctant because his cargo was Vietnamese bodies in body bags, which were accompanied by grieving family members.”

Thirty-nine years later he still recalls the overpowering smell of the dead.

“The windows of the plane had been removed because of the odor,” he explained. “And the pilot let me stand behind him in the cockpit with the cockpit door shut for the entire flight to Tan Son Nhut, Saigon.”

Now a government contractor serving in Southwest Asia, Mr. Milakovich still earns his livelihood in the tech world, working as a communications engineer for the 379th Expeditionary Communications Squadron.

Mr. Milakoviach isn’t the only Vietnam veteran serving with the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing in Southwest Asia. More than a dozen Vietnam veterans identified themselves in a recent survey. They come from the Active Duty, Guard and Reserve.

Master Sgt. Rex Brown, 379th Expeditionary Medical Group material NCOIC, was drafted in 1969 as a private. He served as a communications radio operator in the Army, and was assigned to the Demilitarized Zone in the Republic of Korea. He was honorably discharged from active duty in 1970, but enlisted in the Army National Guard eight years later where he rose to the rank of E-6 as an Army medic.

The medic transferred from the Army Guard to the Army Reserve, serving as a platoon leader. He continued his career officer track until he became a captain. After a tour as a headquarter staff officer in security and intelligence, the medic felt his calling back to his roots. In 1995, the Vietnam veteran took off his captain bars and joined the Air National Guard. Today Sergeant Brown works in medical logistics material.

Other Vietnam veterans deviate from their original military career assignments. Master Sgt. Clarence Hopkins, 379th Expeditionary Communications Squadron, previously served as a crew plane captain for the CIA aircraft in Da Nang, South Vietnam. He flew people, cargo and supplies to the ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Four decades later in Southwest Asia Sergeant Hopkins works on engineering communications projects around the AOR supporting Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa.

Not all Vietnam era veterans were stationed directly in Vietnam for the war.

Chief Master Sgt. Gearhart Hayes served at Korat Royal Thailand Air Force Base in the country of Thailand. The chief took part in a deployment known as Constant Guard VI on Dec. 26, 1973. His unit deployed 23 pilots and 342 enlisted Airmen from the 358th Tactical Fighter Squadron to Korat.

“I worked as an automatic flight control specialist in the avionics flight,” said the Chief. “Anyone who was assigned to this deployment returned to Davis-Monthan AFB in May of 1974.”

In the same international spirit, Chief Hayes now works as the superintendent of the communications support team for the Combined Air Operations Center. Back home in Pennsylvania, the chief serves in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 112th Air Operations Squadron.

Senior Master Sgt. James Greaves is also a guardsman. Deployed from the 135th Air National Guard in Maryland, the Airman is temporarily assigned to the 746th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron. During the Vietnam War he was stationed at Nha Trang from 1971-1972 where he flew and maintained C-123 aircraft.

Sergeant Greaves serves here with another Vietnam veteran from the Maryland Guard, Master Sgt. Thomas Lowery, who serves as an information management specialist with the 746th EAS. During the Vietnam War, Sergeant Lowery worked as an air traffic controller but volunteered to serve as a gunner on helicopters with the Marines from 1970-1971. He continued flying different types of aircraft until about eight months ago when he switched to his current non-flying job.

“Most of the Vietnam vets on this base are probably guard or reserve,” said Sergeant Greaves. “This probably has to do with the age of Reserve component members. But I know there are a number of contractors here who also served.”

An employee of Northrup Grumman, Rick Stierer, is one of those contractors.

Mr. Stierer is a training supervisor for the 379th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron. Today he manages the wing’s flightline driving program and directs the off-base driving program. Back during the Vietnam era, Mr. Steirer served at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam, from 1969-1970.

“I was in the U.S. Air Force attached to the 366th Combat Support Group,” said Mr. Stierer. “My main job was to receive, deliver and disseminate classified material to their proper locations.”

Mr. Stierer said his service at Da Nang seems like yesterday.

“We witnessed happiness and joy and relief, as well as tragedy and loss,” he explained. “During my first six months in-country, we were billeted in tents surrounded by sandbags in what was referred to as our ‘hooch.’ We later moved to more permanent buildings.”

Mr. Stierer said one day he saw images he’ll never forget.

“I looked out and saw several large stacks of aluminum caskets,” he recalled. “It was then I realized we had moved to the end of the runway where casualties were temporarily staged before their final flight home. That image has stayed with me ever since.”

Other veterans recall similar memories and emotions. Sergeant Lowery said his most memorable moment took place Oct. 10, 1970.

“It was 2335 hours to be exact,” he said. “And we were trying to extract two Marines once click south of Camp Carroll near the DMZ (demilitarized zone) when we were shot down by small arms fire.”

Sergeant Lowery said there was no loss of life during the incident, but he still vividly remembers the sight of dead and wounded soldiers.

“While many of the aspects of service life are the same during this war, I think one thing stands out,” said Sergeant Lowery. “I still see the same commitment in today’s Airmen to serve our country.”

Mr. Stierer said the differences between today’s Global War on Terror and the Vietnam War are still evident.

“No two wars are the same,” said Mr. Stierer. “The most striking difference is the number of troops. We had more than 500,000 troops on the ground in South Vietnam between 1969-1970, alone. And we didn’t have ‘practice’ exercises in Vietnam. The war was quite enough in and of itself.”