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Memorial wall conjures Vietnam vet’s memories

Apr. 9, 2013 - 12:56PM   |  
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HALLETTSVILLE, Texas — Ronald Ridgeway moseyed past the Texas Fallen Heroes Memorial Wall and carefully studied each service member’s photo.

The retired Marine and Vietnam War veteran gazed at the wall’s 15 panels of photos. The 623 photos were separated by year, displaying the faces of military men and women who fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001. Each is from Texas or chose to be buried in Texas.

The wall of heroes was erected for the 10th annual Veterans Appreciation Day at the Hallettsville Knights of Columbus Hall, where more than 1,000 Texas veterans gathered recently to celebrate and pay tribute to area military servicemen.

As Ridgeway fixed his eyes on one of the oversized panels, he thought of his son, a Navy reservist, who was deployed to Afghanistan in March.

“It’s not just my son. It’s everyone’s son. It’s someone’s daughter and mother and father,” he told the Victoria Advocate.

But the wall also brought back memories of Vietnam. And for a moment, he recalled the sorrow his own parents must have felt in 1968 when Marine officials informed them their teenage son was killed in action.

Ridgeway, 63, of Hallettsville, east of San Antonio, said his parents would wait five years to learn their son was alive, living as a prisoner of war in a Vietnamese camp.

“They thought I was dead. My parents got the insurance money and everything,” he said.

Ridgeway enlisted in the Marines at 17.

“I went down to join the Navy, but the recruiter was out of the office that day. The Marine recruiter was there, and he convinced me to join,” the Houston native said. “At that time, I knew I would go to Vietnam, but I was young, carefree and invincible. I wanted to go. I didn’t think about the danger.”

An infantryman with the Marines’ 1st Battalion, Ridgeway was shipped to Khe Sanh in South Vietnam to carry out patrol missions in the middle of the jungle. He was ordered to draw out enemy soldiers who were moving in on 6,000 American soldiers with 50,000 Vietnamese forces using rifles and grenades.

“We were basically being used as bait to draw them out,” Ridgeway recalled, noting the many soldiers he saw killed and wounded in the field.

While his military base was continuously under siege, Ridgeway and a team of about 48 men were sent beyond the base perimeter to patrol the area.

Almost immediately, they were met by the North Vietnamese army, and combat ensued.

To ensure American soldiers were dead, Ridgeway said, the Vietnamese would throw grenades at them then shoot at any bodies that demonstrated life.

During a violent blast that killed everyone but him, Ridgeway was knocked unconscious.

“I came to in the night when I felt them trying to take off my watch,” he said. “I laid there and played dead. They believed I was, so they were stripping all the dead bodies of gear, and when they started stripping me, I opened my eyes. That’s when I was taken.”

On Feb. 25, 1968, at least according to military documents, Ridgeway was taken prisoner.

With two bullet holes in his body — one in his shoulder and one in the butt — he was forced to walk more than three miles to a camp near Laos while four Vietnamese guards walked near him at all times.

“I was slow-going, but they preferred I walk so they didn’t have to carry me,” he said.

Ridgeway’s Marine officials eventually came into the area where he was taken to take an account of the loss of life. The brutality of the blast that ensued between American and Vietnamese soldiers made identifying bodies difficult. Ridgeway was thought dead and was ordered to be buried in a mass grave with the others.

While Marines informed his family of his death and burial overseas, Ridgeway was transported to a jungle prison camp where he spent the next five years in confinement.

“There was abuse. Some were more sadistic than others, but we were mostly treated better than some. I can’t talk about the abuse in detail, but it happened,” Ridgeway said.

There were no showers, and one meal of substandard food was served daily. He suffered illness, dysentery and was not allowed to speak to other prisoners.

Many days were spent in confinement, with one long, torturous six-month stretch where he was imprisoned alone, except for when he was removed to be probed for information about U.S. military secrets.

“We weren’t prisoners of war there. We were war criminals. They let us know we could be executed at any moment,” he said.

In 1973, the Paris Peace Accords established peace in Vietnam to end the war and remove U.S. military involvement from the country.

Ridgeway was a free man, at last.

“The first time I learned my family thought I was dead was when someone in the camp handed me a copy of a Newsweek magazine, and I saw my picture and my name printed in the article. That’s how I knew I was declared dead,” he said. “I still have the magazine.”

The POWs were released from the Vietnamese war camp slowly at first and picked up by American aircraft to be returned to the states.

They were shipped to the closest military base for recovery. He traveled first to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines then to Camp Pendleton in California.

The Marines determined Ridgeway had suitably fulfilled his contractual requirements for service even though he had several years left on his agreement.

He retired and went home to Houston.

“My father was surprised to see me. My mother said she never believed I was dead,” he said.

It took some time adjusting to American culture after years in prison, but Ridgeway was determined to live and live well.

He said he never experienced any mental or psychological trauma from his experience as a POW.

“If you think you’re going to die in there, you will. And there were guys who died in captivity,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let them beat me.”

Ridgeway eventually got married, went to college and upon graduation went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Houston, where he worked for 30 years assisting other veterans.

He said he has not forgotten. But he has forgiven the past.

“I’m not angry at the Vietnamese. They had a job to do just like I did,” he said. “No one goes through war and comes out unscarred. But at some point, you realized you can’t let those memories guide your life. You have to put the past in a compartment and separate what has been and move forward.”

Ridgeway saluted the men and women on the Fallen Heroes Wall and remembered those he served with 45 years ago.

He said, for his part, he’s appreciative to be a survivor and a success story and to be in a place where he can now salute the men and women who bravely enlist for military service.

“I came back, basically, in one piece. But others didn’t. I think about that,” he said. “I have an endless amount of respect for anyone who serves this country in whatever capacity they serve. No matter what they do, they will have my respect.

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