Vets to return to Vietnam
Written by DEBBIE ROGERS Sentinel Staff Writer
Tuesday, 03 September 2013 09:55
Like any good travelers, Steve Benner and David Ridenour have their cameras charged, maps highlighted and suitcases packed.
|Steve Benner, left, and Dave Ridenour are both headed back to Vietnam. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
But their trip next week isn't to some sunny beach or even aboard a cool Alaskan cruise. It's to a place many wouldn't blame them for forgetting: Vietnam.
The veterans, who each spent about a year serving their country in the controversial war, are leaving Sunday for a two-week stay led by Vietnam Battlefield Tours. The non-profit organization is run by Vietnam veterans who conduct several tours annually.
They plan to visit some of their old stomping grounds, including the Mekong Delta region south of Saigon, where Benner served with the 9th Infantry Mobile Riverene Forces in 1970, and to the area north and east of Saigon, where Ridenour served with the 1st Signal Brigade from 1971-72. They will also visit Hue, Quang Tri, Khe Sanh and other battle areas.
Why go back to a place that many consider a mistake for the U.S. to have been involved with?
"My veteran buddies say I'm crazy," Benner said.
There are many reasons.
Both men are very active in veterans' organizations - Benner is commander of VFW Post 1148 in Bowling Green, and Ridenour is the adjutant for American Legion Post 45 in Bowling Green. The two have made many trips to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and have been ride escorts for the moving wall around the country.
Ridenour, 64, wants to honor local veterans who lost their lives in Vietnam. Locally, he's been instrumental in updating the names of veterans who've died on the Fallen Heroes plaque at Memorial Hall on the Bowling Green State University campus.
Sgt. Steve Shaner of Bowling Green, a former Buckeye Boys Stater, died in a firefight in Vietnam. He's buried in Oak Grove Cemetery. Ridenour will say a special prayer for him.
"It's 58,281 of our peers. We must not forget them," he said of the U.S. dead in Vietnam, whose names are etched on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. "Part of me (wants to know) was it worth the loss of our friends? Did we have an influence?"
Those men and women will also be on Benner's mind as he travels Vietnam.
"Being at the wall, reading the names, I'm so blessed to come home, raise a family, have grandkids. Those guys never had a chance," he said.
Ridenour also said he has a desire to see how it all turned out - did America's intervention 40 years ago make any difference in today's Vietnam? He called it "unfinished business."
Benner wants to fill in the gaps of cities and towns he went through as a soldier. The memories of his service aren't good. Camp was a scary place, he said, with a lot of drugs being dealt and morale in the sewer. He recalled slogging through mud with 60 pounds of equipment on hot days with humidity soaring above Ohio's on a muggy August day.
Benner was taken out of Vietnam by Medivac in December 1970 after having an almost fatal reaction to a sulfa-based drug he was taking to ward off malaria. He spent a few weeks in various hospitals before going home.
Ridenour described his signal corps service as "long moments of boredom, interrupted by sheer terror."
Both men said they simply tried to forget about Vietnam when they got home, getting married, raising families and working.
Benner, 67, said his interest in veterans' work was ignited at a Charlie Daniels Band concert.
"He played that song 'Still in Saigon' and it sparked me up, kind of brought back that stuff."
In 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened in Washington, D.C. Ridenour went to the dedication.
"That was my awakening as a veteran," he said.
Both men attended the 25th anniversary of Rolling Thunder last year in Washington, D.C., in honor of POW/MIA soldiers.
Benner, of Portage, and Ridenour, who lives in Bowling Green, met in Jaycees in 1974. It was awhile before they put their veteran connections together.
"We didn't talk about it much when we got back home," Ridenour said of the war.
This time will be different. Ridenour plans on taking thousands of pictures and displaying the best of the photos in a veterans art show planned for Way Library in November.
(Ridenour will write two columns for the Sentinel-Tribune about his Vietnam return experiences, one on his trip and one when he gets back to Bowling Green.)