Vietnam seen through the eyes of veteran and students

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WARWICK – Veteran’s Day will be especially meaningful this year for the students enrolled in the course “The Vietnam War, 1945-75” at Bishop Hendricken High School.

The members of Joseph Cichon’s class have gained an appreciation and respect for the dedicated young men and women who not only served in the Southeast Asian conflict, but for all soldiers who have fought in conflicts to protect their freedom as United States citizens.

One of the students taking the popular senior elective course is Tri Nguyen, an exchange student from Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

As part of the course, the young men have listened to three guest speakers who talked about their experiences in Vietnam. One of the presenters, Richard Cichon, a retired Somerset, Mass. teacher, recently addressed his first cousin’s class.

Cichon, a 1964 graduate of Providence College and Marine Corps veteran, shared his experiences as a young man – not too many years older than the Hendricken students – going off to war with the uncertainty that he might never return alive to his family and friends.

He recalled flying over Mount McKinley in Alaska, the highest point in North America, thinking it might be the last time he ever saw the United States.

“I watched ‘til it faded out of sight,” he recalled, adding that he prayed to God that if he couldn’t come back alive, he would be buried in the United States. He added that as he traveled to Southeast Asia, the words of the then-popular pop tune “Leaving on a Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary permeated his thoughts.

Cichon, who served as a Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam, flew more than 200 combat missions.

“The two things that hit me when I got to Vietnam were the heat and humidity and the smell of raw sewerage,” he said, adding that the waste material filled a stream that ran near the mess hall. He recalled being in Da Nang, north of Saigon, at 4 a.m., where the temperature was 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity.

“The sun wasn’t even up yet,” Cichon observed. “We walked around sweating. It rained all the time.”

He mentioned that despite the oppressive heat, the soldiers in his platoon, like most others, were dressed in heavy combat gear for long periods of time – “waiting for the phone to ring.

“The Marine Corps chow wasn’t all that bad,” Cichon told the interested students. He noted that it was difficult to keep track of the days, and the soldiers only knew it was Sunday when they saw the chaplain preparing to celebrate Mass.

Cichon noted that while he is still a “hawk,” his experience in Southeast Asia made him think about war and how it affects mankind. He told the students that people should use their intelligence to solve global problems and to find a cure for cancer and AIDS, rather than to kill each other.

“I do pray for those who lost their lives on both sides,” he said. “I am not a hero, I’m a survivor.”

Nguyen said that the once ravaged city is fully recovered and prospering with a great deal of foreign investment.

“People don’t talk about it,” he said. “We have had so many wars.”

Nguyen added that today young Vietnamese learn about the conflict in history class, much like students do in this country.

“I don’t feel that there is hatred,” Nguyen observed, noting that the restored country is slowly becoming a tourist destination.

Classmate Ethan Pino of Johnston said Cichon’s presentation provided him with an understanding of what life was like for the soldiers serving in Vietnam, and the various jobs that they performed during the war.

Cichon said in an interview following his presentation that while he had little contact with the Vietnamese people, he came to realize that they were defending their homeland. He observed great poverty, and eight and nine-year old children smoking and living adult lives.

“They had no childhood,” Cichon recalled.

As part of the elective course, the students traveled November 2 to Cheshire, Conn., to see a replica of the Vietnam Wall.

Joseph Cichon said that there are 240 soldiers with Rhode Island connections who died in Vietnam. Each year a book award is made at the school in memory of Lt. Richard McKenzie, Bishop Hendricken Class of ’63, who was killed in Vietnam.

Since the Hendricken course was initiated five years ago, students have researched the names of the deceased, whose names have been placed on the school’s own Vietnam Wall. The final nine names will be added in a patriotic ceremony that will be held on November 19, 6:30 p.m., at the school. The keynote speaker will be Judge Francis X. Flaherty, associate justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, a Vietnam veteran, and a 1964 Hendricken graduate.

For more information, call Jan O’Donnell at 739-3450.