Carolyn L. Higgins – Contributing Writer
When Rick Norton pried the lid from his post-war “box,” the first things he recognized still inside were pain and guilt. The box that had sat on his mental shelf for 40 years needed attention and could no longer be ignored. It had had a few trial runs with the Vietnam veteran colleagues at his post, but it still needed some emptying. It was time for a full reckoning. When his best friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Deryle Perryman, called as had been his pre-Vietnam-trip routine for almost 10 years, this time Norton was ready. It wasn’t fear, disdain for former enemy Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, or lack of funding that held him back; it was something much more personal – his commitment to taking care of his wife, Anita. “Perryman started going back to Vietnam in the mid-’90s, and every time he would go he would ask me to go with him,” said Norton. “I couldn’t. I had a wife who had a disabling disease . . . MS [multiple sclerosis], and I just couldn’t take off and go for two or three weeks. I just didn’t feel right doing that with her. I said, ‘man you know how much I love you, but I just can’t.’” He left Vietnam in December 1968, but the return trip would have to wait. One chapter closes and another begins His whole world changed when his wife passed from muscular sclerosis on Nov. 7, 2017 – one month short of their anniversary. As he worked through the pain of losing his wife of 48 years, the pangs of war and the contents of the box he’d never shared with his wife still lingered. “About three weeks later, when Deryle called this time, it took me about five seconds to say ‘Yes, yeah bro, we’re going,’ and it went from there,” said Norton.” Perryman had understood. After all, they had been friends for 50 years and this was the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of LZ Brillo. They made plans to meet in California to fly from Los Angeles to Hanoi, Vietnam and arrived on March 18. An excited, yet travel-weary Norton had traveled a total of 21 hours from Greenville, S.C. Norton paid his way, which was fairly inexpensive. A round-trip ticket from Greenville to Vietnam and back cost him $1,300. Since he had been many times, Perryman was very familiar and was able to show Norton many places, including the Museum of Natural History, the Military Museum and the Hanoi Hilton. They spent the first five days and nights at a beautiful hotel in the old part of Hanoi and had a great time. “We were just a block over from the lake that John McCain parachuted into when he became a prisoner of war, and I walked around that lake,” said Norton. Patriotism vs. realism Before the trip, Norton still had some struggles to resolve, dealing with his guilt. “I’m a child of the ’50s and ’60s,” said Norton. “And in the ’60s, everything in the south – we’re patriotic . . . Our fathers all fought in WWII, our grandfathers all fought in WWI, so we think it’s our duty to be in the service and defend our country.” Norton explained how a later revelation convinced him the Vietnam War turned out to be different. “You grow up, you get a little maturity about you, and you see what’s really going on. And you understand that’s a war we should never have been in in the first place. A lot of people know but they don’t want to admit that.” Norton enlisted at age 21 because he knew he was going to get drafted and thought he could “get a better deal” by volunteering. However, rather than two years, he spent three years total in service from January 1967 through January 1970. He went to Fort Sill, Okla. for artillery training and then was stationed at Fort Irwin, Calif. where he met Perryman. Now living in Albuquerque, N.M. but originally from Florence, Ala., Perryman and Norton bonded from their similar experiences. “Like me, he is a good ol’ southern boy,” said Norton. They were both gunners (a military personnel member who operates an infantry support weapon) in the same company, which was reactivating an entire battalion to go to Vietnam. Although Perryman later went to college and competed as a baseball player, Norton is quick to reveal his competitive spirit as a gunner. “I was the best, and he was the second best.” They have remained best friends, staying in touch and Norton refers to Perryman as “a brother from another mother.” Fierce battles and the repercussions Norton left Long Beach, Calif., by ship on Dec. 2, 1967, and landed in Quin Yan Harbor on Dec. 23, 1967. The troops disembarked the ship on Christmas Eve and went by convoy to An Khe, Vietnam that was to serve as their base camp. From An Khe, their batteries dispersed to different locations. Norton belonged to C Battery, which moved to Dak To. From there, Norton describes the scene as narrated best by a soldier. He said they were just a bunch of kids, ranging in age from 18 to 21 years old and had never been put into a situation like that. Most thought it was going to be that way the entire tour although it wasn’t. “At that time, we hadn’t been there long enough to know what was going to be happening,” said Norton. “Nobody told us. We weren’t really aware of what the Tet Offensive was until basically it was over. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the Viet Cong attacked all major cities simultaneously. It was an extremely dangerous time; but we just thought, ‘well, this is what we’re going to be doing for the next year.’ We didn’t have anything to go back and compare it with.” The Tet Offensive was a coordinated series of North Vietnamese attacks on more than 100 cities and outposts in South Vietnam. The offensive was an attempt to foment rebellion among the South Vietnamese population and encourage the United States to scale back its involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Norton, there were no casualties in their unit for this battle, but they did have troops killed in action (KIA) at Poly Klang. However, other troops at Dak To were killed and numerous North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong died because of the constant barrage of artillery being fired at them during the Tet Offensive. By March, Norton’s battery suffered troops killed in action while at Special Forces camp. “Any time the enemy is shooting at you it’s not good,” said Norton. “It doesn’t make any difference if it’s a big battle or a little battle. The Tet Offensive was a bad time during that two to three weeks, having the highest rate of KIA’s in Vietnam for the American Troops.” Opening the ‘box’ a bit wider Norton discusses how he began to deal with “the box.” “Well, okay, let me get this framed right in my head,” said Norton. “When I came home, I didn’t talk about it. Vietnam was a taboo subject. We came back here on flights and started home. No one welcomed me home except for my immediate family. There were no welcome parades or celebrations. It wasn’t a popular war, so I took Vietnam and I put in the box in the top shelf of the closet in my mind, and it stayed back there for 40-some years. No one wanted to know anything about it, and no one wanted to discuss it.” He knows that what kept him afloat was his lovely wife that was the most profound personal reason for his three years in the military (January 1967 through January 1970). Having met her on his first rest and recuperation (R&R) break to Australia, he asked her to marry him on his second R&R there. Well after his return, Norton was watching the fall of Saigon on the evening news and came to a conclusion that allowed him to express himself. “Basically, we shouldn’t have ever been there in the first place. That was a war between the Vietnamese. They should have been the ones to settle it and that should have been it. We had no business over there killing people. For what?” What got the box off the shelf was the Vietnam veterans post – Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #994 (VVA) in Franklin. For years Norton didn’t even use the Veterans Administration. He forsook anything to do with the military or veterans service organizations. Since his return he has had good jobs that allowed him to provide for his late wife and son, Darryn – now a teacher in Greenville, S.C. Although his childhood was in the Carson Community of Franklin, Norton worked hard and saved to purchase his family’s home in the Clarks Chapel community. He carved a career in real estate and land development and eventually took a job as housing director with Macon County Program for Progress for a number of years. “I always had insurance available and my thought was I don’t want to take up another veteran’s spot,” said Norton. “But they’ve been good and supported me through Agent Orange after effects and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). My dad was a commander of the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] post, so I went to the VFW back in the early ’70s – shortly after I got out.” But he didn’t stay and didn’t return to any veterans’ organizations until the VVA. When it was chartered, he joined “just to get three guys who were pestering” him to leave him alone. “I did join, and I will tell you this: The best thing I ever did was join the group of guys in here.” said Norton. “We don’t sit in here and tell war stories. We don’t need to. We know what everybody went through. It’s just the fellowship – its camaraderie, but it did bring all that other stuff out.” When they discuss Vietnam, it’s about what it has done to all of them. They laugh rather than cry, cut up, tease and aggravate each other. “I might have laughed more since I came back from Vietnam because laughter comes from happiness, and I’m happy. I’m happy with what I saw and with what I experienced. I saw them [the Vietnamese] happy and now I’m happy,” he said of his recent trip. Questions and reflections Referring back to the patriotism he mentioned earlier, Norton says as a result, you go fight for whatever, because you believe your government. “You don’t believe that your government will lie to you, but they will. Finally that dawns on you. You feel sadness mainly that your government has put you somewhere, and you’ve lost 58,000 of your fellow citizens for absolutely no purpose at all. What if one of those 58,000 guys was the one that would have come up with the cure for cancer or for diabetes or for multiple sclerosis? Or what if he’s dead because of a war that we should never have been in in the first place? For the most part, Norton says he feels it was easier to blame the soldiers than the government but believes that sentiment is changing as people begin to understand what really happened. He added two points: 1) It wasn’t successful, and 2) we shouldn’t have been there in the first place which is the reason it wasn’t successful. “It seems like this country is so focused on wars rather than peace,” said Norton. “It’s not wars that are defending our freedoms or our rights – it’s defending corporate profits. Why should one 19-year old buck private in the army or Marine Corps lose his life for corporate benefits? ‘Old men make decisions that get young men killed.’ I heard a chapter member say.” Norton added that there are good corporations that are socially responsible and trying to do the right thing. Norton is pained about the loss of innocent lives and says reflection is haunting. “A lot of times American units would go into villages and take a sniper round and an American soldier would be killed, and we put three or four rounds of our 175 on that village. Maybe we killed the enemy sniper; maybe we killed two or three Viet Cong along with children, mothers, and grandfathers. That aspect didn’t come into me until I was out of the war [with time to] think about what I had done. I told someone we have been called ‘baby killers.’ I said ‘I am a baby killer.’ I didn’t see it, but I know it happened.” He said it was important to return to to do something to heal himself. He wanted to see the kids playing and to see Vietnamese doing their daily routine. “I didn’t want to see pain,” said Norton. “I didn’t want to see tanks, guns or bombs. I wanted to see Vietnamese being happy living a life of peace. All those people wanted to do was grow their rice, have babies, live their life and die in peace. They didn’t care if it was Communist, French or American. Norton shared that some are willing to go back and fight, while others go to find closure, to find lost children and to find ways to help. “I’ll go back today, but I’ll go back over there to try to do some good – not to fight,” said Norton. “There is a large contingent of Americans who live in Vietnam very inexpensively. They are there because they’ve got that feeling that they owe something and are trying to give it back in some way. They now have a peace within themselves.” A surprise welcome from new brothers Norton returned to Vietnam for closure and received some, although he doesn’t think he’ll ever get enough. “We went back on the actual date of the 50-year anniversary of the battle for LZ Brillo (a landing pad in Central Highlands, Vietnam) when the NVA was trying to take over that Firebase,” said Norton. “I was treated marvelously by former NVA soldiers that I actually fought against. They treated me like a brother, as a fellow veteran. They said ‘the war is over; you were a soldier, we were a soldier. You followed your orders and we followed ours. There is no animosity left between us.’” It was an emotional and healing time as Norton heard these words coming from former enemies. This surreal experience brought tears from both sides – Norton, Perryman and six guys from the Fourth Infantry Division and guys from Vietnam’s NVA 209th Regiment. “Meeting these guys that I actually fought in the battle against and the camaraderie that we had and their love for us was very emotional,” said Norton. “It was so fantastic to be with those guys and to hear ‘you are our brother’ and they treated us that way.” “For them the war is over and I guess it is easier for them, too, because they won [the war],” said Norton. “But the point is that they were willing to accept us as fellow veterans and as fellow brothers that fought in the battle. They didn’t win this battle, but they fought it and lost a whole lot more people than we did. (More than 3 million people, including 58,000 Americans, were killed in the conflict.) For them, it’s over – it’s done.” Receiving and bestowing honor Hero is a word Norton feels is used too lightly and has become a trend, detracting from the real heroes. He refers to himself as a combat veteran rather than a hero because he did his job as he was ordered to do. However, there are heroes in his chapter VVA 994 who have won silver stars and some were POWs. For his service, Norton has received several awards and commendations, including the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the National Defense Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Service Medal. “As a Vietnam veteran, I don’t like ‘thank you for your service,’ so if you want to tell me something that makes me feel good . . . something that might make my eyes well a little bit with tears, say ‘welcome home. Welcome home,’” said Norton. “The guys that are in Iraq and Afghanistan today, if I see one of them, I’ll say ‘thank you’ in a heartbeat and ‘I sincerely appreciate your service.’ I do think they’re in wars again that we shouldn’t be in, but they’re serving their nation, and I appreciate that. When they come home, they have their families and they’re getting a welcome home.” Finding purpose After his wife died, Norton thought his purpose here was over because he had spent the last 26 years taking care of her. He never regretted when she was stricken with MS, believing he received two R&Rs and married her because something was going to happen to her, and he was the one the good Lord had picked to get her through it. Six months later, he figured God had something else for him to do, and he still had his son and daughter-in-law. His son revealed that means a lot to him. “My father really and truly is a special man,” said young Norton. “He had spent so much time being the primary caregiver for my mother. He has taken my wife and treats her like she is his daughter. He volunteers and does so much for the VVA and its members and the community. He’s just a special man. He really and truly is.” “I figured God still has something for me to do,” said Norton. “Maybe it’s just saying the right words to somebody next week. Maybe I could make a difference. Most people have it in their heart to be good. A lot of them just haven’t found it yet. What I see today is it’s all about me.” Norton had seen the mountains in pictures, but it did not hit him until he had arrived in Kon Tum, Vietnam. He had been looking out the window and finally he saw it. Riding with the guys that were the old enemy receiving their welcome and seeing that mountain that had been in his head for 50 years, was just what he needed. “It’s almost like I’m home – I’m home,” said Norton. “Yeah, it was just unreal. There were two vans full of us and we had some interpreters with us. The language barrier was not too bad. Young people would stop us on the streets of Hanoi, because they thought we were American and they wanted to practice their English.” Perryman had often shared with Norton about his efforts to launch a music school in Vietnam. Norton decided to become involved after his visit, serving on the board of directors of a nonprofit called “Two Bricks,” to aid the school and other ventures. According to Norton, the name was derived because an Air Force general stated back in the early ’60s that they would bomb Vietnam “back to the stone age and there would not be two bricks left.” The name is symbolic for the nonprofit because there are two bricks left and more. They are working with popular Vietnamese artist, Kaly Tran who has become a great friend of Perryman. Tran is the director and has great influence and knowledge of the Montagnards. Tran and his sister were orphans so that is a key piece as well, because she runs an orphanage that Norton had begun supporting through monthly donations. “Everything is so entwined,” said Norton. “The music school that we are trying to do is to keep alive the music of the Montagnard tribes in Vietnam. It means mountain people. They were the indigenous people in Vietnam, kind of like the Indians here.” Norton said the Vietnamese are trying to assimilate them into civilization. There is no written language and the music is a way of preserving the culture through the generations. The Montagnards are known for helping the American soldiers shortly after the Battle of Dak To where lives were lost. They provided key assistance as mercenaries for Special Forces and their camps, including Poly Klang. Due to their vigilant skills and training, the NVA could never defeat the firebase or overrun Poly Klang and LZ Brillo. Unfortunately, Montagnards suffered greatly after the Americans left and some combatants sought refuge in America. Many are in North Carolina near Fort Bragg because they had a huge affinity for the Green Berets. Perryman had already funded instruments that had shipped, but Tran had waited for their arrival to unveil them. Since it was another moving moment for Norton, he was glad they had waited. Returning and seeing the lush foliage no longer there, replaced in part with modern amenities and smog, reminded him not of the dangers he faced as a gunner trying to hit difficult targets in the wooded area, but of the price of progress that has endangered a people. “There is so much hate in this world today, but soldiers hate war more than anything or anyone” said Norton. “I had a lot of my faith in humanity restored when I went back because I see these people out doing their thing. They’re running their businesses or on their way somewhere. The kids are in school, and in the afternoon you see the kids coming down the street and they’ve got their little uniforms on and people are smiling. That’s what you didn’t see in the 1960s. I think most people have a good heart – they are trying to do the right thing – they are trying to raise their families. Now I’m trying to help. I’m hooked and I’m going back.” His proud son has heard him encourage other veterans to return and has seen a welcome change in his father’s demeanor. Welcome home, Rick Norton.