By Lindsey Rodrian
As Americans we execute, practice, and preach our rights; The right to speak freely, to petition our beliefs, to practice religion, to assemble, and to be compensated, respected and considered, regardless of race, sex, age, and religion. Although our forefathers fought for these rights in a century almost impossible to imagine, it is the veterans of the past and present wars that protect the life we live today.
As the war on terrorism settles, we give our utmost thanks to the thousands of soldiers in San Joaquin that sacrificed to uphold freedoms we are accustomed to. As we welcome our brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters home- those that experienced their trials and tribulations many years before have paved the way for our current veterans’ success and stabilization as civilians. These men and women make it their mission to provide support, recognition, and a helping hand to those that put their foundational needs on the back burner to provide United States’ residents with a lifestyle often taken for granted.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, and each day in between, we give thanks to those who fought, and those who dedicate every ounce of their being to the support, honor, and care of their fellow soldiers.
Army Aviation Crew Chief & Door Gunner on Huey’s
Many San Joaquin residents know Andy Prokop as the foster child turned humanitarian that dedicates his life to the success and support of our community and its people. But in 1967, Andy found himself among the many young men called to serve in the Vietnam War. As a 19-year-old college student finishing his fourth semester, Andy was devastated by the arrival of his draft letter. Destined to be an infantry soldier, he decided to re-enlist, giving him the opportunity to choose his position and title. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m here to give myself a chance to survive,’” explains Andy. And with that thought, he signed on as a crew chief and door gunner.
Andy chuckles as I ask of his first day in basic training. “The first question I was asked was how long I’ve been an idiot…I said, ‘about three days.’” At that moment, he learned to keep his mouth shut and his head down. Catapulted into war, Andy was in Vietnam for just a few days before experiencing the TET Offensive, one of the largest and longest enemy assault on American Forces. “We spent 30 days under “Red Alert” while being aggressively attacked by the Viet Cong.”
As a door gunner, Andy’s main responsibilities included protecting the Helicopter and Flight Crew while transporting soldiers into the jungle, supplying them with food, and then bringing them out. “I always thought I had it better than the soldiers I left in the jungle,” he says. “The men we picked up were far different than the men we dropped off. They saw the world differently. I praise them and honor them.”
Andy was given the nickname ‘Swift,’ because of his attentive nature. This led him to a role that holds much honor, serving as the Door Gunner on the Company Commander, and “HUEY” Pilot Major Ford’s Helicopter. “I loved and respected him, and I protected him at all costs.”
After 12 months spent consuming C-rations, hitting the floor at the sound of an alarm, and cleaning blood from his helicopter, Andy was one of two blessed to return home alive; from his group of eight that left for Vietnam together. “My last nine months of service was spent in Germany, and that helped me re-adjust and unwind.” Andy returned to the United States as an expert marksman and the recipient of multiple combat wings, logging over 800 hours as a door gunner. His many honors were accompanied by, what he describes as, ‘a quick fuse and a chip on my shoulder.’
Diving immediately back into the workforce, Andy says his patient, understanding wife of 44 years was the main component throughout his healing process, one he initially suppressed. When asked what Vietnam taught him, he pauses before saying, “The service gave me the opportunity to know I can survive anything. Nothing will ever be worse. God protected me so that I can do something positive with my life. I had these test and trials to make me a strong, confident, and capable leader.”
Andy continues to honor the blessings he’s received by paying it forward. Through his involvement with the Karl Ross Post, Welcome Home Heroes, and several other Veteran services, he focuses on support and re-acclimation of current veterans. “We work with many Veteran Non-Profit Organizations to help them find jobs, stable housing…and to find the off switch,” he explains.
“Today’s veterans are coming home with more survivable wounds, many of which are not visible, in numbers that are greater than any past war; the repetitiveness and length of deployment… the skill set… the advanced explosive devices….”
“In my era, you may have been tagged and left for dead,” he says. “Today, more of our wounded Veterans are able to come home, and we need to be ready to serve our wounded warriors and their families, more now than ever before.”
Faustino Adame Jr.
Marine Corps Lance Corporal
At 19, Faustino “Tino” Adame lived out of a foxhole in the Vietnam jungle, ate C-rations from World War II, and served as a squad leader responsible for 12 men. Vietcong mortars ignited the reality of his first day of service in July 1966, as Tino joined fellow Roaming Battalion Marines assigned to search and destroy missions, and protection of the demilitarized zone. “We went out every night, and the days that we didn’t, we kept watch over the base and made sure our weapons were clean,” he says.
Though he and the men in his unit spent every moment together, Tino explains, “We tried not to form relationships because we didn’t know what would happen, or if they would make it out alive.” Always on alert, Tino’s unit called the thick jungle home and slept in a rotation to ensure the safety of their fellow soldiers. The days were long and humid. Tino remembers the clouds creeping in and the raindrops instantly evaporating as they hit his exhausted body. Trench foot, a compromising and painful condition of the feet caused by wet socks and marked by blackening and death of surface tissue, was always an issue of concern. “We carried extra dry socks with us, and made sure to change them as soon as we could,” he says.
Positioned in the far north, Tino and fellow soldiers picked up North Vietnam radio stations that often played music from the United States. Though they enjoyed the sound of home, radio hosts taunted the soldiers and knew they were listening. Tino says the hosts would say, “Marines why are you here? The people of your country don’t even want you here!” “They would try to get in our heads through radio,” he remembers. When I ask how he harnessed his strength, he replies, “We had to be creative…to mentally survive.” Tino begged the lord to keep him safe and wrote letters home on the back of C-ration boxes.
“I never regretted my decision. I joined. I knew where I was going. I just didn’t know how bad it was.” As I sit with this highly decorated man, he vividly recounts November 16 1966. “We were on a search and destroy mission, traveling from village to village, when we walked right into a Northern Vietnam Army (NVA) horseshoe ambush,” says Faustino. “Everyone hit the ground, and that’s the worst thing to do.” Tino grabbed each soldier by the collar to signal the men to move out and regroup. “I saw a fence line, jumped over it and fell to the ground with a burning sensation in my leg.”
Tino remembers a fellow soldier coming to his aid… “He stuck his finger through my ankle, shot me with morphine, and called in the medic unit.” The helicopter that came to Tino’s rescue was shot down by the NVA, leaving he and his soldiers stranded amidst unwavering combat. Tino crawled to a ravine in search of refuge… and found it, as a tall, blonde soldier instructed him to hold on as he cradled Tino in his arms and carried him to safety.
“I didn’t know who that blonde man was,” Tino says, as his voice cracks under the weight of his words. Tino was transported to the Philippines and then Japan, where he was hospitalized and treated for his injuries. Though doctors planned to amputate his leg, he stands strong today on both feet. Throughout his hospital stay, Tino searched for the man that saved his life. “Jerry Curwin,” he states strongly, with both humility and distinction.
“I was able to find his sister’s phone number and I gave her a call. I told her what her brother had done for me, and I asked if I could talk to him,” he says, pausing as he looks down at his hands. “She said, ‘no,’ that he was killed in an ambush the following year.” When Tino returned to the states, he was transported via ambulance. “Demonstrators were outside of the gate, and I heard rocks hitting the ambulance, the yelling, cursing…. That was my welcome home.”
Lack of community support and mental health resources for Vietnam veterans in our area left many unable to heal, cope and move forward. As the reality of their service wreaked havoc with no outlet, many turned to drugs and alcohol. With 28 years clean, Tino rallies for veterans. As Karl Ross Post 16’s commander for 14 years, he knew when the Afghanistan War began, that there was a need to advocate for the soldiers in our community. Today, he is a State Chairman for Veterans of Foreign affairs, working with veterans that have just returned home. “I work with them personally, one on one,” he continues, “I am here to support them.”
“I strive to make the community aware of this great need. Each year, Stockton has a Stand Down for Homeless Veterans, where we offer services and fight to get them off the streets.” Almost at a loss for words, I ask one last question, “How did your service and experience affect your life?” He says proudly, “My father raised me with the flag, and patriotism is in my blood. It’s my duty to carry on that tradition and continue to help our veterans.”
While finishing her last year of high school, Gail Belmont auditioned for the Women’s Army Corps Band. “I read an ad in the newspaper calling on female musicians, and I thought it would be a good thing because I could get the GI Bill,” she recalls. “My folks couldn’t afford to send me to college, and I wanted to go to school for music.”
With nearly a decade of trumpet playing, Gail was welcomed into the band and sent to basic training at 18 years old. “It was my first time on an airplane,” she says. Mid-air, she spoke with a uniformed soldier, “He told me, ‘I’ll tell you a secret- don’t ever look back, because if you do, it will make you cry.”’
Upon basic training graduation, Gail moved from barrack to barrack with the 14th Women’s Army Corps Band. The group made up of 70 girls, traveled the United States playing concerts and parades. As a trumpet player, she also played Taps at military funeral ceremonies, a call sounded at the completion of the ceremony. “We averaged maybe five funerals a week,” she remembers. She notes those life-changing duties as the toughest to perform, as she recalls standing in front of mourning families. “In my own way, I did serve in Vietnam. I saw the consequences.”
Her three years of active duty with the band formed unbreakable bonds. The group still gets together, today, every two years. “Our youngest member is 58 years old,” she says. She smiles fondly as I ask about memorable moments, she responds with standing ovations, meeting the Eisenhower’s, and being placed in the Women’s Army Hall of Fame.
In 2010 Gail founded Quilts of Honor, after spending five years establishing a way to support, comfort, and honor veterans. “I wanted to personally shake hands with these men and let them know someone appreciates what they went through.” Now a national non-profit, Gail serves as Quilts of Honor’s Executive Director, traveling to deliver quilts made specifically for combat soldiers; each one numbered, registered and displaying the name of its recipient. With over 400 nation-wide volunteers Quilts of Honor gifts thousands of quilts to veterans spanning from World War II to the ongoing war on terrorism.
Just recently, Gail and volunteers met with soldiers from the USS Blue, a destroyer ship that saw much combat. After giving a veteran his quilt, Gail shares, “He sat down in his seat and said, ‘I can’t believe someone would do this… after 40 some years…that someone would even care what I went through.” “And that’s my mission,” Gail says, “We want them to know that we care. And we hope that they start to heal, that they start to talk about it.”
Claude “CP” Riddle
Army National Guard Brigadier General, Retired
Growing up in the World War II era, “Respect for the flag was ingrained in us,” CP Riddle explains. With multiple family members overseas, CP did his part to support the troops and the war effort from the young age of 10; collecting newspapers and bacon grease to be recycled, and hanging stars in his window. “We also all got a taste of rationing… gasoline, sugar, meat.”
At 17 years old, photos of Korean conflict inspired CP to join the Army National Guard. He finished high school while training with the National Guard on Monday nights. Following graduation, he was sent to basic training. Although he describes the experience as, ‘something you’d never want to do again,’ his childhood days at a military academy allowed him to feel somewhat at home. “I have military in my blood,” he says with honor.
At the end of basic training, CP signed on full time with the National Guard as an Air Defense Technician, focusing on air defense artillery and protection of missile sites in the Los Angeles area. He then attended flight school in Texas and Alabama, to return to Stockton, where he worked as an instructor Pilot teaching ground school and flight training to Army National Guard Aviators.
Serving from 1952 to 1991, CP called Stockton’s National Guard base home, working to successfully support Army needs and logging over eight thousand hours flying CH-47 helicopters. He oversaw 65 soldiers and worked daily to maintain and provide capable helicopters to complete national missions, and on a local level, secure the safety of San Joaquin residents as the helicopters fought forest fires and performed search and rescue. Throughout his service, CP also experienced tours in Belgium and visited North American Treaty Organization sites.
“I was a patriot when I joined, but I am even more so now,” he says. “It was my job to support our military the job they do, and it was an honor to serve.” Following retirement, CP laughs as he shares his attempt to become ‘the new Arnold Palmer.’ Realizing a career in golf was not in his cards, CP returned to his roots, working in commercial real estate, public relations at Pac West Telecom Inc., and donating immeasurable time to the support and prosperity of San Joaquin. “I’ve been a Rotarian for over 20 years,” he states. “My other life, even throughout my service, was working with nonprofits.” His dedication is clear, with roots deeply planted in staple organizations of the Central Valley, including the United Way, American Heart Association, and the Asparagus Festival.
Today, he exercises his patriotism by standing tall and practicing much gratitude as a part of this great country. “I try to instill patriotism in my daughter each day,” he shares. “She learned the pledge of allegiance when she was only two!” So, how did your military experience influence your opinion of war? I ask. CP answers strongly, saying, “I don’t see how anyone that enjoys the great fruits of this country cannot support the military. These are the people we owe our freedom too.”
Johnny and Flora Brooks
Army Private First Class, Quilts of Honor
“It took years for it to sink in… that people thought it was unusual that I stayed with Johnny,” Flora says in regards to the 41 years spent caring for her severely injured, double amputee, Vietnam veteran husband. “I didn’t stay out of duty, or because it was the right thing to do. He was my rock, he was everything. When you have a love like that… you are devoted to each other, no matter the circumstance.”
Flora first met Johnny at Stockton’s Franklin High School. Their lockers were close by, and “he was extra cute,” she says with a smitten giggle reminiscent of young love. “He started walking me to class, and we were together ever since.”
A year after high school graduation, Johnny surprised Flora with a proposal on Christmas Eve. “Of course, I wanted to get married right away!” Flora says excitedly. But as a hard working mechanic living in the Vietnam era, Johnny was sure he’d be drafted, so he wanted to wait.
Once he reached 19, Johnny felt confident that the draft had passed him by, and asked Flora to set a date. On Johnny’s 20th birthday they had a small, intimate wedding with punch and cake. “It was about the marriage, not about a big fancy wedding,” says Flora. Three weeks later, Johnny was drafted. He left for basic training less than two weeks after he received his letter, and was ordered to Vietnam in September 1969.
“I was scared to death. But we all lived in this era, it was our generation,” Flora continues, “Of course, no one wants to go to war, but when you love your country, you serve, and Johnny loved his country.”
Johnny was assigned to the Army’s First Infantry Division. On November 14, 1969 the company faced heavy attack, lives were lost and Johnny was severely injured. “He wrote me a letter before they transported him to an Army hospital in Japan,” Flora recounts, “He always wanted to protect me, so he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m okay.’”
One of Johnny’s legs was amputated during his stay at the Japanese Army hospital. When he returned to the states on December 18th, the doctors reported to family and friends that they were unable to save his other leg, but were fearful of surgery because he had lost a lot of blood, and his back was badly injured.
Flora and Johnny spent their first Christmas as husband and wife, with their close family, in the hospital. Four days following, doctors worked to perform skin graphs on his back. During the procedure, Johnny went into cardiac arrest, and it took 23 minutes for his heart to beat again.
“He was in a coma, but not like you see on TV, where they’re laying there quietly sleeping,” Flora remembers, “He was awake, in extreme pain, and would just stare for hours. He couldn’t focus his eyes.”
Flora recalls moments of triumph amidst such grief, “I remember when we realized he knew who I was, who his family was. After time, he was able to actually look at me, not past me.” Due to brain damage caused by his cardiac arrest, it took months of therapy for Johnny to be able to speak only a few words. He was moved to geriatric long-term care, and Flora worked to learn how to care for her husband so that he could come home. And home he returned, with his loving wife, in their hometown of Stockton.
Veteran’s Affairs provided the young couple with equipment and tools to help Flora care for her husband, who, because of a scar tissue, could only sit up for a few minutes at a time. “We learned to communicate simply because his words were very jumbled,” Flora explains. “People always wondered how we could understand each other. But his face was so expressive, I could always figure out what was going on.”
Though her high school sweetheart was unable to stand, sit or speak because of injuries sustained in Vietnam, Flora says she wouldn’t trade anything for all the extra years they were able to spend together. Throughout their time, they attended church and took up hobbies like quilting, for Quilts of Honor, a combat veteran-focused charity. “I would put the sewing machine by his bed, and show him the fabric I was using, and he would watch me quilt.”
Johnny passed in 2011, two days after his 62nd birthday. Following his passing, Johnny was honored and his name was placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., and the Sacramento and downtown Stockton memorials. “He was always just so loving and kind,” Flora remembers. “He had such a peace about him.”