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Updated: Monday, 12 Nov 2012, 3:03 PM CST
Published : Sunday, 11 Nov 2012, 11:20 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - The first
American military records recall an Army master sergeant who became the first Texan and one of the first two Americans killed in the war in Vietnam.
According to Cheryl Fries, a spokeswoman for the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument project, Master Sgt. Chester Melvin Ovnand, of Copperas Cove, was sent to Vietnam in the fall of 1958 as a military advisor.
Six months later, Ovnand and fellow American troops were watching a two-reel film at their post. When the first one ran out, Ovnand reached for the light switch so the projector operator could change the reel.
Outside in the darkness, enemy troops were waiting. When the lights went on, they opened fire. Ovnand, a 44-year-old World War II veteran who was only weeks away from his scheduled retirement, died instantly.
Sixteen years later, according to Fries, after American troops had already been pulled out of Vietnam, Khmer Rouge soldiers from next-door Cambodia were holding the American crew of a merchant cargo ship hostage onboard.
Among the U.S. Marines sent on a helicopter rescue mission was Pfc. Antonio Ramos Sandoval, a 19-year-old from San Antonio. During the mission, Sandoval’s chopper was shot down. It would take 15 years for his remains to be recovered from the sea and returned to the Alamo City for burial, making him the last service member from the Lone Star State to die in connection with the Vietnam War.
Between the deaths of Ovnand and Sandoval, another 3,413 Texans lost their lives fighting in Vietnam. Now two of their fellow warriors are working together on a mission of their own, to honor their fallen comrades by creating a military-style dog tag for every single one of them. When the task is finished, the tags will be entombed in the Vietnam Veterans Monument now being cast in a Bastrop foundry.
But the volunteers are also making another set of tags to be publicly displayed at a place still to be determined. So altogether they will create a total of 6,830 of them.
Veterans Don Dorsey and James Hart are using a cumbersome old dog tag imprint machine to do the job. It is slow, dull, grinding work.
“I'm doing this for the guys that didn't get to come home,” Dorsey said. “And that's all it means to me; I'm honored to do it and it's my job to do it.
“You could get someone with an electric machine to do it faster,“ he acknowledged, “but it's personal. You know, I want to be hands-on with the guys that I served with. I don't care (how long it takes); it doesn't matter to me. I've got plenty of time.”
Dorsey has that much time because after 26 years, he was finally diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and given full disability status.
But back in the late 1960s, Dorsey was in pharmacy school at The University of Texas and protected from the military draft by a college deferment. All around him, protestors were marching against the war and Dorsey, too, had plenty of doubts about the conflict. Still, he was deeply torn.
“It was my duty, actually,” Dorsey said. “I felt that it was my duty to go. I come from a family of five boys, all veterans, and you know, I would not have felt comfortable not going.
“I didn't think the war was a good thing, but I love my country and that was my purpose for going. It was my civic duty, my duty as an American.
“My twin brother was a Marine grunt in Vietnam,” Dorsey went on, “so I knew eventually I would go in; it was just a matter of timing.
“I volunteered for a two-year enlistment and while I was finishing up my training, my twin got wounded. And so I waived my right so that I could go on over and relieve him so he could come home.”
Dorsey wound up serving as a sniper in Vietnam, a dangerous and lonely assignment that sometimes found him taking fire from not only North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers, but from fellow Americans, as well. Three other members of his sniper team were killed in country and Dorsey still wears memorial bracelets on his wrists bearing their names.
“Six days after I left Vietnam, I was discharged,” he recalled. “So I was just dumped on the streets with a lot of psychological problems. I had been running assassination teams and all of a sudden, I'm stuck with a whole bunch of people that don't like me.”
The booby traps
Things were not much better for U.S. Marine James Hart, another Texan with deep military ties.
“My dad and his grandfather, they were all in the service,” he said, “and then my little brother quit school and he was 17. My parents said, 'You've got to do something with your life.' So they signed him up for the Marine Corps. He went to Vietnam while he was 17.
“They made him a tunnel rat and his job was going into the tunnels to see what was down there, which was probably one of the least desirable jobs over there.”
By the time Hart, himself, got to Vietnam, though, active combat was subsiding. That, however, did not mean the deployment was without danger.
“We'd thrown so much ordnance at them,” he said,
“bombs, booby traps, mortar rounds. They had all this ammunition they had rewired and used against us. There wasn't a day I was in the field in Vietnam that I didn't see a booby trap. In one operation alone, I found 32, myself. So it was a whole different kind of war.
“I only remember one person being med(ical)evacked (evacuated) for a gunshot wound. We had them medevacked mostly for booby traps.
“So I can relate to what they're doing in Afghanistan now, having to deal with I[mprovised] E[xplosive] D[evice]s. It's a psychological thing.”
So a decade or so ago, when Hart and Dorsey met through the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans , the two became fast friends.
“The Marines had a tendency to work the same areas over and over and over,” said Hart, “and I'd mention hill-so-and-so and he'd been there, or fire-base-so-in-so and he'd been there.
“And it was just so relieving to me to actually finally meet somebody who'd been in the exact (place) and we just started talking and we've never stopped.”
So now Hart and Dorsey work side-by-side at a kitchen table, Dorsey manning the imprint machine and Hart fastening the freshly minted dog tags onto neck lanyards.
“When I'm looking through the list,” said Hart, “I'm just amazed because there are so many privates, which means that they were pretty young in age.
"To see so many -- 18, 18, 18, maybe 19 -- and then you start, every once in a while, to see a 20- or 21-year-old. But most of them are under 20. And this is just Texas. You see sheets and sheets, just line after line of nothing but 19- and 20-year-olds -- kids.”
The work goes on, the clunky machine responding noisily to the persistent pull of Dorsey’s right arm on the handle.
“Anything to bring attention to veterans,” said Hart. ”That's my whole purpose, to let people know that they are more than just people. They're people that love their homes, their families and go off and serve and some didn't come back.
“I want people to remember that, that Memorial Day is not just for sales, you know; Veterans Day is not just for sales. There are people involved and that's what I want people to remember.”
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