By Seth Daniel
Lester McLaughlin is the kind of quiet guy who often is more concerned about his duties as a long-time School Committeeman, as a businessman or as a father and husband, than he is about telling others the amazing sacrifices he made in Vietnam.
So it was, when McLaughlin took to the podium during the Veterans’ Day Ceremonies on Friday, Nov. 11, and told his story, he left the room in tears that erupted into a round of applause that would not stop.
McLaughlin carries the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry with Silver Star, the United States Bronze Star for gallantry and the Vietnam Campaign with six battle stars – among many other honors.
He spoke publicly about his experiences in Vietnam during Veterans’ Day as a tribute to the 50-year anniversary of the Vietnam War – something that many Vietnam Veterans don’t often do given the nature of how they were received by the general public when they returned to the United States. However, many Vietnam Veterans lately have been speaking publicly about their heroic and traumatic experiences given the anniversary that has come this year.
“What I’m about to talk about isn’t fun; it’s pretty hard stuff,” he said at the outset, holding back the emotion. “No one who has participated in (war) is the same. You can’t see what you see and do what you do without it affecting the rest of your life…In Vietnam, a lot of times we played Frisbee and threw the football around. We had fun with each other and depended on each other for our lives. We shared dreams of wives, girlfriends, children born and children yet to be born. Our lives were yet unlived. We were all there when others were killed or wounded and all the dreaming stopped.”
While in his early 20s, already married and with three children in Everett, McLaughlin was drafted into the Army in 1966. After training at Ft. Devens, he said he was sent over to Vietnam in July 1966.
Most of his service in Vietnam came in the dangerous and difficult Iron Triangle near the city of Cu Chi in the Tay Ninh Province.
McLaughlin was a 1st Lieutenant in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade on Nov. 11, 1966 and he was attached to the 25th Infantry Division – which was in the Iron Triangle near Cu Chi.
“They were getting hit all the time and they needed a blanketing wall and we were the ones chosen for that task,” he said. “There had been a ferocious battle on Nov. 7, 1966 where half my company were killed or wounded. Some of this is hard to talk about. I was unaware on Nov. 14, 1966 that another big wave would hit us on Nov. 15, 1966…I was the last lieutenant standing, a very young lieutenant. We had 22 people left. Everyone else was killed or wounded. I knew them all. They had trained in Ft. Devens – all drafted and 19 years old. I knew their families, their parents.
“The Air Force and Navy and all Army military services exist just to get those 19 year old kids on the line,” he continued. “At 19, you give these kids the job to find the enemy, fix them in place and kill them… On the other side, their job is to find us, pin us down with fire and kill us.”
McLaughlin also detailed the tough times that spouses went through, particularly his wife, Helen, whom he has been married to for 52 years. Asking for a round of applause, he said times were tough for military families during Vietnam, and few know about that.
“She was here alone with three children in Everett,” he said. “When I was over there, they held our pay for three months and so she had nothing during that time. She begged and borrowed to get through it. In Vietnam, we were dumped into a black hole. There was no communication and no contact, but we got through it. How about a round of applause for her?”
McLaughlin also said that coming home was not a happy occasion, and many like him never got the closure they deserved from Vietnam.
“When I got back to California, they told us to take off our uniforms and don’t tell anyone we were in the service,” he said. “Then they said, ‘Welcome home Vietnam Vets.’ I have attended reunions recently of some of those I served with. Life has not gone well for many of them.”
He said looking back after 50 years, he wished everyone to know how horrible war is and what young men and women go through in order to protect those in their country.
“It has been said that freedom has continued because stout young men are willing to commit violence on our behalf,” he said. “Please do not forget them and what they sacrificed.”
At the conclusion of his speech, new Veterans Officer Jeanne Cristiano led a standing ovation that lasted several minutes as the room digested the story relayed by McLaughlin.
“It’s truly amazing what Lester did and we should never forget his story,” she said. “He is truly an American hero.”