Vietnam vets honored by Quilts of Valor on weekend before 9/11

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, September 12, 2023

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WEST POINT — Five veterans who served during the Vietnam War era were honored for their service during a Saturday Quilts of Valor presentation at in downtown West Point. Some of them became emotional when they talked abut some harrowing experiences they had during the war, suffering from agent orange exposure and dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the war.

The men being honored included Larry Quinton, Stanley Robinson, Roy Stodghill, Jack Messersmith and John Mizzell.

Quinton grew up in the Plant City community and graduated from Valley High in 1963. He served with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. Robinson is originally from Longview, Kentucky and grew up in Lanett. He’s a 1965 graduate of Lanett High. During his high school years, he knew three young men from the Valley – Larry Hill, Thomas Senn and Jerry Moon – who were killed in Vietnam. During the war he was with the 187th Combat Squadron, based at the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. 

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Stodghill is from the Camp Hill area and was with the U.S. Marines from 1968-72. He was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. His unit was based in Da Nang. Messersmith is originally from Johnston, Pennsylvania and now lives in Sharpsburg, Georgia. During his time in the service he became an expert mechanic on submarines. He’s now the president of the International Submarines Association. He had much experience in working on submarines, some as far down as 4,000 feet. He’s now an expert in gemology and has a fantastic rock collection. He’s also found a good bit of gold.

Mizzell is a native of Oxford, Alabama. He entered the U.S. Army through a delayed entry program in August 1969. During basic training he earned designations as a qualified expert in the use of the M16 rifle and the 38-caliber pistol. Two years later he graduated as a warrant officer from a fixed wing aviator course. He was in Vietnam in 1971 and 1972. During his service he earned the National Defense Service Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal, several campaign medals and a Bronze Star.

Program emcee Sheila Simpson said that she didn’t know much about the Vietnam War until she read a book entitled “Better Men.” It was written by a teacher from Newnan High and is about men from Coweta County who served in Vietnam. “Some of them had dropped out of school to join a branch of service when they were old enough to do so,” she said. “Many of them felt that those who were serving their country in the military were better men than them.”

That’s how the book got its name.

A number of those young men from Coweta County would never make it back home. The book tells their story.

One of the men being honored Saturday said his welcome home in San Francisco included a long-haired man spitting at him and calling him a baby killer.

“That wasn’t right,” Simpson said. “We need to make amends for that. We want you to know you are in our hearts for having served our country. We consider you heroes.”

Quinton told an overflow crowd present for the ceremony that he had suffered from PTSD for seven years and will never forget what he went through. “I could not have served with better men,” he said. “The real heroes of the Vietnam War were those who never made it back.”

Quinton said he would never forget taking part in Operation Buffalo on July 2, 1967. There were 18 men in his squad. He was one of only three men who lived to tell about that very difficult day in the Demilitarized Zone, better known as the DMZ. The U.S. soldiers taking part were heavily outnumbered by soldiers from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). “It got to the point where the highest ranking officer in my squad was Sgt. Burns. He was a very good friend of mine. We were in very heavy fighting for nine-and-a-half hours. We called in air strikes to help us. They told us to hug the ground when the planes got there to drop forty-seven 500-pound bombs. They then hit the NVA positions with napalm. We were close enough that it singed the hair off my chest and legs. That got them off of us.”

At the start of the day there were 150 men in Bravo Company. “At the end of the day only 27 of us were still alive,” Quinton said. “For me to be one of them still alive I felt that God had a plan for me when I got back home. We lost so many good men that day. Those are the ones who are the heroes. I want you all to realize that.”

Quinton received a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts during his war service.

Robinson said he can understand how Quinton feels because he went though similar things. “There’s still a deep hurt in me I can’t get rid of,” he said. “I still have nightmares. To have lived through what I did I knew that God had something for me to do when I got back home. I hope I have lived up to what he wanted from me.”

“Every day in Vietnam you didn’t know what to expect,” Robinson said. “There were so many ways you could get killed. A booby trap could do it to you. An ambush could be your end. I saw it happen to so many guys, many who were good friends.”

Robinson has struggled with PTSD and has had to learn to control temper tantrums it can lead to. He said he’d like to find some good veterans to partner up with.

“Many of you were boys when you were sent to Vietnam and came home men,” Simpson said.

One of the men being honored thanked the quilting group for what they were doing. “I lost my wife in 2013,” he said. “She was a seamstress who worked in projects like this. She would have loved what you do, and it would have meant so much for her to be here today. It’s days like today I think of how much she meant to me.”

Simpson thanked everyone who has made donations to keep the Georgia-Alabama chapter of the Quilts of Valor active. “We appreciate Mayor Steve Tramell for providing a place for us to quilt, and we appreciate the support we get from the public. We recently received a generous donation of fabric from a woman in Newnan. It included yards and yards of red, white and blue fabric. It filled up the truck we were in.”

Simpson said that the quilting group is always open for volunteers to come and help them. “If you have some skill in quilting or sewing we will be glad to have you. If you just want to come and visit with us that would be good, too.”

The program began with a medley of military songs, “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” for the Army, “Anchors Aweigh” for the Navy, “Semper Veritas” for the Coast Guard, “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” for the Air Force and “The Marine Corps Hymn” for the U.S. Marines.

Simpson read a narrative about the national Quilts of Valor organization. It was founded by Catherine Roberts in 2003. Her son was serving in harm’s way at the time, being involved in the invasion of Iraq. She worried constantly for his safety and one night had a dream of him being haunted by his war demons and then finding comfort in wrapping himself in a quilt. That inspired her to form a quilting group of women making quilts and giving them to soldiers who were serving, or who had served, in combat zones.

It took several years for Roberts and her small group to make 100 quilts, but as other women found out what they were doing more quilting chapters were formed. They went from coast to coast. The number of quilt presentations passed the 100,000 mark in 2014. As of this month, a total of 357,215 quilts have been presented to veterans and active duty personnel.

“Each quilt presentation carries with it a three-part message,” Simpson said. “First, we are honoring you for your service and your willingness to leave all you hold dear and stand in harm’s way in a time for crisis for all of us. Second, we know that freedom is never free. Our quilts are meant to say thank you for your many sacrifices. For those of us who have never seen combat or been in a war zone, such experiences are beyond our capacity to comprehend. Finally, these quilts offer you comfort. Throughout history, when young men left home to fight in a war, many of them took a quilt made by a family member that they called a comfort quilt. It may have been all these young men had to remind them of the warmth memories of home can bring. We want you to use this quilt. It is not meant to be hung on the wall or put in a display case.”

The local chapter has made a special effort to award quilts to veterans of World War II and Vietnam. Those Americans who came of age during WW II have often been called “the Greatest Generation.” Precious few veterans of that war are still living. The Vietnam War was a divisive period for our country, and those Americans who served in it were often disrespected on their return home. It’s long past time to make amends for that.