STILL TOGETHER — These Rome residents served in Vietnam in 1965-1966 and are now serving veterans and the Rome Community through their work at Rome Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2246. Pictured from left are: Post Commander Ronald Barry; Treasurer Jim Conners; Quartermaster Donald Converse; Trustee Richard Cummings; and Chaplain Paul Pawlikowski. (Sentinel photo by John Clifford)

These five soldiers refuse to fade away

Published Feb 1, 2018 at 4:00pm

They fought together in Vietnam, and 50 years later five Rome residents are still together — fighting to serve their fellow veterans and the Rome community at the Rome Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2246.

• Former company clerk Ronald Barry has become the current post commander;

• Truck driver Jim Conners is the post treasurer;

• Former intelligence analyst Donald Converse works as post quartermaster;

• Mechanic Richard Cummings is now a trustee; and

• Artillery gunner Paul Pawlikowski serves as Post Chaplain.

They are working to keep the mission of Post 2246 alive as it — like many VFWs across the country — faces declining membership and financial struggles.

“The five of us trained at Fort Dix in New Jersey, and we all spent a year in Vietnam,” Conners said. “Now we’re trying to hold it together.”

Welcome to the jungle

After completing basic training the five men went their separate ways to Vietnam. It was 1965, and U.S. troop strength would increase to 200,000 by year’s end. Congress had given President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to use military force without a formal declaration of war. The U.S. wanted to prevent what they termed the “Domino Effect,” which theorized that all countries in Southeast Asia would become communist if South Vietnam fell.

Barry went by airplane, and the other four endured 20-day voyages on troop ships from San Diego to Vietnam.

“It was impossible not to get seasick,” Cummings said. “Once I was on KP duty, and I had helped prepare powdered eggs for 4,000 men. One of the men got sick in the eggs, and a mess sergeant came by and whisked the waste off the eggs. Some men ate off the bottom of the pan, but most men decided they weren’t hungry.”

The Rome group went their separate ways in Vietnam. They joined American, South Vietnamese, Australian, New Zealand, Thai, South Korean, Taiwanese and Filipino forces representing free countries determined to prevent a Communist North Vietnam takeover of South Vietnam. The priority was safety, and the men soon learned to be aware of the frequent mortar attacks on their various encampments.

“I wasn’t especially worried. We’d just go to our bigger artillery guns and fire back,” Pawlikowski said.

The men, when not fighting, also had to adjust to the Southeast Asian culture.

“It was extremely humid, and one of the things I missed most was being able to take a shower,” Barry said.

“In America everyone was driving cars. In Vietnam we’d see people in carts pulled by oxen,” Pawlikowski said.

Cummings and Barry agreed they missed one particular staple of the American diet. “I didn’t have a glass of milk for an entire year,” Cummings said.

An unseen enemy

American service men and women also had to face the isolation caused by separation from home and families.

“We didn’t have the technology we have today,” Pawlikowski said. “Incidents like the soldier in “American Sniper” talking to his wife by phone during a gunfight just didn’t happen.”

“I was 19 and in charge of 350 men, like Radar on “MASH,” Barry said. “I could get things, but it was tough giving these guys “Dear John” letters, where their wives or girlfriends would tell these guys their were leaving them for someone else back home. Guys would sometimes ask me to write back on their behalf because they were busy fighting, and I’d ask them what difference it would make.”

Conners said there was no danger of fake news in 1966.

“We destroyed a large ammo dump, and the officers told us not to tell anyone about it. Later on my mother mailed me an article in the Rome Sentinel describing the event,” he said.

The home front

By 1966, the men had completed their one-year tour of duty and were ready to come home. “One year was enough,” Pawlikowski said.

They were greeted by protestors who shifted their anger about the war to the soldiers who fought it. “We were in San Francisco on the way home and I thought I saw Jesus Christ. It turned out to be some guy leading his friends to protest us.”

“We didn’t have any parades or anything welcoming us home,” Barry said. “I knew of, but didn’t see for myself, protestors who were calling soldiers baby killers and traitors. If I had I would not have handled it well. I blame the media for misrepresenting what we were doing over there.”

The United States ceased military activity in Vietnam in 1973 and was out of the country by 1975. The members of Post 2246 moved on with their lives, which included raising families, establishing careers and supporting the Rome community.

Tireless support

Conners said the five to work to support their fellow veterans and the Rome community through the VFW, which despite the changing times continues to make an impact throughout the community.

“We do what we can,” Conners said. “We repaired a roof in 2015 which was more expensive, at $109,000, than our building was when it was built in 1890. There’s always something to fix.”

Financial woes have also been exacerbated by dropping members. Conners said the closing of Griffiss Air Force Base in 1995 alone shrank the membership at Post 2246 from over 800 to 237.

“it’s hard to recruit new members, even though we welcome veterans of all wars,” Barry said. “I imagine these people are spending time with their families, and I don’t blame them. It’s what I did when my kids were younger.”

While the occasional state grant, like the one used to build a lift along the post’s stairway, have come along, it is increasing membership, Barry said, is crucial to financial recovery and ensuring that the VFW is around for decades to come to support veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, among others.

For information about the Rome VFW, go online to its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rome-VFW/554252474594693 or call the VFW at 315-337-7740.