Amidst the backdrop of a dimly lit VFW post, local veteran Tom Ward shared the value of teamwork he encountered as a sailor during the Vietnam War.
Now in his eighth term as the commander for VFW Post 1003, the 66-year-old Jefferson Citian says his own combat experiences have helped guide his personal efforts to continue serving his fellow veterans years after war's end.
Attending Linn Tech for one year after graduating from Helias in 1965, Ward began his own journey to military service with the realization he would soon be drafted.
"The Navy (recruiter) told me I could get a job in aviation electronics, which is what I was interested in," Ward said, and was consistent with the education he had pursued during his time in technical school.
The young man enlisted during the summer of 1966 and the following December completed his boot camp at Great Lakes, Ill. He came home for a brief period of leave and then returned to Great Lakes for engineman's school.
"It was basically training to become a diesel mechanic," Ward laughed. "They promise you one thing, but then put you where they want you," he said, of the Navy's failure to place him in aviation mechanics.
When concluding his training in July 1967, he received orders to report to the USS Proteus - a submarine tender that was anchored in Guam. Submarines, Ward said, would pull up next to Proteus while the ship's crew performed maintenance and necessary repairs.
Ward added, "I didn't work with any of the subs; I was working in the engine room (of the Proteus)."
Eighteen months later and prepared for a change, Ward volunteered for service in Vietnam and was sent to Coronado, Calif., to complete several weeks of preparatory training such as jungle warfare and survival techniques.
In April 1969, he arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to a naval group with the YRBM-16 - a barge that carried a couple of attack helicopters - and small welded-steel landing craft referred to as "Mike boats."
Their group, Ward said, was stationed near the Cambodian border on the Bassac River, which, he described, "was as far south as you could go."
Once every few weeks, Ward would help crew the Mike boats as they went on brief missions to resupply firebases with ammunition, fuel and other supplies. Their boats were also fitted with a special device allowing them to sweep for mines floated down the river by enemy forces in attempts to damage their boats.
Though at the time an inexperienced sailor, Ward remembers performing watch cycles from midnight to dawn to look out for enemy swimmers attempting to attach explosives to their barge.
"We were constantly throwing concussion grenades in the water," he said. "If (swimmers) we're out there, they'd float to the top."
Other assignments Ward participated in were more humanitarian in nature, including occasional missions as part of the Medical Civic Action Program.
"We would go into villages with a couple of doctors and some corpsmen and provide medical care to the civilians." Ward would generally help provide security for the American forces during these missions.
One year later, however, his combat tour ended and he returned to states, receiving his discharge in April 1970. Moving to Jefferson City, Ward soon re-enrolled at Linn Tech, and graduated with his associate's degree in aviation technology in 1972, marrying his fiancÃ©e, Eve, the same year.
The veteran went to work at the Westinghouse Plant and began taking night courses at Lincoln University. In 1977, he graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical technology and was promoted to engineer at Westinghouse (which later became ABB).
He retired as a senior project engineer last year and now spends much of his time volunteering with the VFW Post 1003, which he has been a member of since 1979.
"There are a lot of veterans out there that need help and the VFW donates a lot of time and money to causes and programs that provide this support," Ward said. "That's something I'm honored to be a part of."
Yet the combat veteran explains there is one remnant of his time in the military that coincides ideally with his continuing work with veterans.
"The time in Vietnam taught me the value of good friends and teamwork," he said. "And considering the conditions we were in back then ... well, it was important that you had people with you that you could count on, that you knew would back you up if needed.
"These were stressful situations that brought out the best in people and I'm glad that my work in the VFW helps keep me connected to the same type of people I met during the war, who continue to give selflessly of themselves," he added.
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.