An independent salute to veterans of Scottsdale

(file photo)

It is because of a veteran.

Because of a veteran, we have the right to freedom of speech; to peacefully assemble; to vote; and the right to many other facets of life embedded in our day-to-day lives that are uniquely American.

The message was loud and clear on a sunny Scottsdale afternoon, as retired Navy Capt. Larry Ernst emotionally captivated and moved the audience with a touching tribute to mark Veterans Day 2018.

Over the sounds of young children playing nearby, Scottsdale’s veterans — particularly from the Vietnam War — were paid homage on Nov. 9, at the city’s annual event. Underneath a large tent at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park, a crowd comprised of veterans of all ages recounted the importance of those who served all branches of United States military.

Nearly 40 Vietnam War veterans were expected to be in attendance, and all had their names read aloud. In addition, Scottsdale civic and municipal leaders including Planning Commissioner Larry Kush, Treasurer Jeff Nichols and former councilmember Bob Littlefield were lauded for their sacrifices.

Scottsdale City Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield and historian Joan Fudala spoke to the crowd before keynote speaker Capt. Larry Ernst — retired Navy airman and Vietnam War veteran.

“The U.S. warrior was not defeated in Vietnam, in spite of what traders like Jane Fonda and John Kerry say, the U.S. warrior served with honor and distinction under very difficult conditions,” Capt. Ernst told the crowd.

“The U.S. soldier came home to jeers and abuse, when they should have been welcomed home as the heroes that they were. Some were severely traumatized, before we knew what Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was — many are still suffering.”

Mr. Ernst, a resident of nearby Rio Verde, appeared to move several members of the audience as he became emotional himself, paying respect to the friends he lost during war, and rationalizing poor memories many experienced upon returning to the United States.

Mr. Ernst garnered more than 4,500 hours of flying time in 36 different air craft, and was both a test pilot and fighter pilot instructor in the Navy’s famed Top Gun program.

He began his career in the skies of Vietnam.

“It’s truly an honor for me to help us remember the many sacrifices of our veterans, and what those sacrifices meant,” Mr. Ernst said. “On the Vietnam War — I’d just like to say emphatically for the record, the U.S. veteran was never defeated in Vietnam.”

Veterans pictured listening to remarks made by city officials and Capt. Larry Ernst. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Rosequist)

From Vietnam to Scottsdale

Mr. and Mrs. Littlefield’s story began during the Vietnam War as well — getting married in Hawaii while Mr. Littlefield was on R&R from duty.

“This is especially meaningful to me, my husband of more than 40 years is a Vietnam combat veteran,” Mrs. Littlefield noted during her opening remarks to the crowd.

“After we said our vows and spent some time together, I flew back to Arizona to find our first home and Bob returned to Vietnam to finish his tour of duty. Thankfully, he was able to eventually come back to me after his service was done.”

Mrs. Littlefield estimated that there are 6.6 million living Vietnam veterans.

“As many of you know personally, the culture and political environment in the United States during the Vietnam War was chaotic and very difficult. Despite that, young Americans served with honor,” she said.

“Many consider Vietnam one of the most painful chapters in our history — most particularly how we treated our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen and our marines who served there. Vietnam veterans were often blamed for the war when they could have been or should have been commended for serving their country with valor.”

Mrs. Littlefield explained that veterans were sometimes blamed for the misdeeds of a few, while the honorable service of many should have been praised.

“You came home and sometimes were denigrated when you should have been celebrated. While we cannot right that wrong, we can make sure that today and in the future, our Vietnam veterans know that we honor their service and their sacrifice — we honor you.”

Scottsdale’s historian, a veteran herself, Ms. Fudala spent 21 years in the Air Force — nine years on active duty and 12 years as an Air Force Reserve officer at the Pentagon.

“During the last few years of the Vietnam War, I was fighting a battle of a different kind — wearing an ROTC uniform at Ohio Sate University, I had to battle many walks across campus in the midst of anti-war demonstrations,” she explained, saying she went on to enlist in the Air Force afterwards.

“During all of those 21 years, and 24 years since I’ve been retired, I’ve been so greatly influenced by leadership and camaraderie of Vietnam veterans, including my own late husband Gene.”

There were about 45,000 Scottsdale residents around the time the Vietnam War began to dominate headlines in 1964, Ms. Fudala says.

“Even though it was growing by leaps and bounds, we were still a small and tight-knit community. The war was brought home to us in so many different ways,” she said.

“Many of you will remember that if you were a high school senior here in Scottsdale in the Vietnam era, you went to the post office on your 18th birthday to register for the Vietnam draft.”

Records show that 25 men who lived in Scottsdale, or listed Scottsdale as their home town, died during the Vietnam war.

“One of Scottsdale’s very first casualties was 19-year-old paratrooper Curt Tarkington who died in the battle at Bien Hoa in October 1965,” Ms. Fudala said.

“Curt was a graduate of Scottsdale High School in 1964 and a star athlete with at least two letters in his sport. Hundreds attended his services a few weeks after his death.”

Curtis Tarkington (photo courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)

Ms. Fudala says Scottsdale’s community also rallied together and supported at least five families who had loved ones who were being held as prisoners of war in Vietnam.

Three and a half years later, Scottsdale turned out in force to welcome back the men when they were released.

“Sadly, there were several Scottsdale families who’s son, grandson, husband, brother or father remained missing after the war ended and were eventually declared killed in action,” she said.

“The Walling family finally received that closure in 2012, when pilot Charles Walling’s remains were finally uncovered, identified and buried with honors. I might note that Col. Walling was shot down in 1966, flying an F4 phantom — the same fighter jet that Capt. Ernst and my late husband Gene flew.”

Between the years of 1961-75, scores of Scottsdale residents served in the military and their hometown did what they could to support the troops.

Senator Barry Goldwater used his amateur radio equipment at his home in Paradise Valley to connect military members serving in Vietnam with their families here locally, Ms. Fudala noted, and, in 1968, the Scottsdale Junior Women’s Club planted a grove of trees in El Dorado Park.

“Just as veterans of other wars, Vietnam veterans became Scottsdale civic, government and business leaders, became nonprofit volunteers, and still are, active members of Scottsdale’s community,” Ms. Fudala said. “Most importantly, at war’s end, when very few other groups were reaching out to Vietnam veterans, the veterans themselves helped each other deal with the often traumatic re-entry process.

“So again, thank you to all veterans for your service, to family members of all veterans, to Vietnam veterans in particular, I salute your sacrifice to stand tall when it was so unpopular to do so.”

Capt. Larry Ernst speaks to the large crowd at Scottsdale’s Veterans Day event. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Rosequist)

A soldier died for me today

Mr. Ernst flew two F-4 combat tours during the Vietnam War. In one of the first Top Gun classes to learn advanced air combat maneuvers, he served as a test pilot and was the last captain of the aircraft carrier USS Midway.

“It’s truly an honor for me to help us remember the many sacrifices of our veterans, and what those sacrifice meant,” Mr. Ernst said.

He encouraged the crowd to watch the movie “We are Soldiers,” with actor Mel Gibson, as it gives a good account of the bravery shown by the young men fighting in Vietnam.

Describing U.S. Marines at the battle of Khe Sanh, Mr. Ernst says those men were not defeated.

“In spite of being surrounded for weeks by a vastly superior force, they were never defeated. My fighter squadron received a Presidential Unit Citation, for providing support for their needs, and let me just say, our marines were not only surrounded, these men were inside their perimeter on many occasions. On one instance, I was called on to bomb their smoke, and never heard from the smoke again.”

Battling Russia- and Chinese-trained north Vietnamese pilots, Mr. Ernst says the U.S. Navy and Air Force airman were not defeated in the skies over Vietnam.

“These guys ended up with a 13-1 air to air combat kill ratio — a kill ratio is the number of enemy fighters shot down compared to the number of friendly air craft lost. They did this feat flying and fighting in the backyard of the enemy; they did this with their hands tied behind their backs because of the very strict rules of engagement,” he explained.

Mr. Ernst detailed how rules about who and what can be shot at, weren’t always what the soldiers agreed with, calling some of the rules “stupid.”

“Very few service to air missiles were left in north Vietnam before the bombing halt in 1968, I was over there on my first cruise before this, and at the end, there were very few SAMS — I think they shot them all at me,” Mr. Ernst said light heartedly.

“Let me just tell you, dueling with SAMS was a heart-elevating and butt-puckering experience. I lost a lot of good friends.”

Presenting of the colors, at Scottsdale’s Veterans Day ceremony in November. (Independent Newsmedia/Melissa Rosequist)

After the bombing halt of 1968, Russia and China re-suppplied north Vietnam, Mr. Ernst says, explaining that he saw many ships in the harbor unloading these bombs, which he wasn’t allowed to attack.

“(The ships were) unloading SAMS to resupply the north Vietnamese, who knew they were going to go find us again, even though we didn’t know that. I lost a lot more friends because of that error in political savvy,” he said.

The Tet Offensive, officially called The General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968, was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968, by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam against the forces of the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States Armed Forces, and their allies. It was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian command and control centers throughout South Vietnam.

“During the Tet Offensive, where the north Vietnam invaded the south, a vastly out-numbered Army and Marine forces in south Vietnam defeated over 10 north Vietnam regular divisions. In a highly reported fight for Hue city, the capital of south Vietnam, north Vietnam lost over 5,000 killed, compared to the loss of only 150 Marines,” Mr. Ernst recalled.

“That’s not to degrade 150 lives, that’s a lot of lives. This is a fight where Walter Cronkite, in his infinite wisdom, convinced the American public that we had lost the war. He later admitted he was wrong, but the damage was already done — support by the American public was gone. I say again, the U.S. warrior was not defeated in Vietnam.”

Mr. Ernst closed his speech by expanding beyond the Vietnam War, touching on the vast amount of men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.

“They sacrificed their lives to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, against all enemies foreign and domestic,” he said.

“U.S. soldiers and airman have not failed in executing their duties, although in hindsight some might justifiably question why the politicians had us there in the first place. Therefore I would remind every American that in this contentious and deeply troubling time, it’s the veteran, not the preacher who has given us freedom of religion; it’s the veteran not the reporter who has given us freedom of the press; it’s a veteran not the public who has given us freedom of speech; it’s a veteran not the demonstrators and rioters who have given us the right to peacefully assemble; it’s the veteran not the lawyer who has given us a right to free trial in presumption of innocence; it is the veteran not the politician who has given us the right to vote.”

Mr. Ernst says it would be hard not to ask for forgiveness for not remembering a soldier died for him today.

“That soldier was a sailor, marine, was somebody’s son, brother, husband, wife or friend,” he said.

“We ask God to forgive us for not remembering a soldier died for me today, in some far away place, defending freedom and your and my way of life. To forgiveness for not remembering, a soldier died for me today — that’s what freedom cost, and our soldiers continue to pay that price. Our soldiers are still making the ultimate sacrifice, risking their lives so that we can enjoy the bounty and the privilege of a free and democratic society.”

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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