Vietnam: A veteran’s reckoning with history

Ed Czuchrey

The Enterprise – Sean Mulkerrin

Ed Czuchrey stands with other Patriot Guard Riders in front of the the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall on Thursday in Tawasentha Park.

GUILDERLAND – Fifty-eight-thousand-three-hundred-and-eighteen names are carved into 493 feet and 6 inches of polished black Bangalore granite that gashes the earth of the National Mall – 58,318 unfinished stories; 58,318 casualties of a futile and brutal war.  

Stand at the center of the wall, at Panel 1 East and follow, through the names of the dead, the progression of the war: Dale R. Buis, 1959; Chester N. Ovnard, 1959; Maurice W. Flournoy, 1960; 16 more names in 1961; another 53 in 1962; an additional 6,350 in 1966; 11,363 names were added in 1967; in 1968, another 16,899 names; 58,318 names in total.

So it’s fitting, in a paradoxical kind of way, that the memorial for a war that so many have tried to forget – a war that America “lost” 45 years ago – is seared with the names of the fallen. And it’s reassuring that the ones who did survive, the ones who came home from Vietnam, scarred, and were met with scorn not only from the public but from earlier generations of veterans, vowed: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

It’s that legacy that brought the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall, a half-size replica of the memorial designed by Maya Lin, to Tawasentha Park in Guilderland this past week.  

As I stood reading the names of the dead, I was approached by a volunteer, John H. of Clifton Park, was the most information he would give me on who he was.

John explained that the diamonds between the names were not spacers; they indicated that the body of that soldier, marine, airman, or sailor had been recovered and is buried somewhere in the United States.

“You will also see crosses,” he said. “Those indicate that the body was not recovered, BNR, also known as missing in action.”

He told me that people did not like the design at first; it was supposed to be a memorial to those who died but it was black and buried in the ground.

But John said he always liked it.  

I asked him why.

He stopped and turned toward the black wall that was reflecting his image and asked, “Do you see who’s there?”

John was a helicopter pilot in a helicopter war.

His roommate from flight school was on the wall, he said; that’s why he has volunteered whenever the traveling wall has come through the area – 20 times, so far, he said.

He volunteered to fight too.

“My dad was an immigrant to the United States; he had been in World War II,” John said. “He had always said that you have a duty to this country. And I guess I took it to heart.”


The Enterprise – Sean Mulkerrin
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial has inscribed on it the names of the 58,318 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. 


Another immigrant’s son

Ed Czuchrey of Guilderland joined the Air Force for the same reason.  

“Everything I do today, is based on giving back to this country what it gave to my family. They opened their arms to my folks,” he told me.

Czuchrey’s father came to the United States when he was just 14, arriving from Ukraine with his brother at Ellis Island. Five years later, his mother would also pass through Ellis Island. Eventually, his parents met, married, and settled in New Haven, Connecticut. His father was an oiler on the railroad who became a custom tailor and his mother was a homemaker.

Given the attitudes that some now hold toward immigrants, I asked Czuchrey if they deserve the same chance that his family had.

“I don’t want to infringe on anybody who wants to seek a better life, so I look at it from two points of view: What if same thing were to happen to my parents, where would I be?” he asks.

But, he said, today is not the same.

“God bless them, a lot of them need help and need to get out from where they are but when you send – you may call it ‘fake news’ – countries are sending their women to Florida to have babies so they become citizens of the U.S.”

This concept is known as an “anchor baby,” and it has been proven to be largely a myth. But it is also known as birthright citizenship as defined by the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

I met with Czuchrey again, about a week after our first interview, and I presented him with the information that I had found.

He didn’t double down on what he had said, nor, when presented with new information, did he attack the messenger or dig in and show an unwillingness to concede that his information may have been incorrect.

No – he did none of those things; instead, he thought a moment and then he started a conversation.

He asked me if it was it disproved.

I presented him with the facts that I had found.

“In that light,” he said, “I am glad that you brought it up because it proves that the general reading population, what we read, we tend to believe. We want to believe that the written word is the truth.”


The Enterprise – Sean Mulkerrin
The diamonds between the names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Moving Wall are not spacers; they indicate that the body of that soldier, marine, airman, or sailor was recovered and is buried somewhere in the United States.


How we got here

In light of his willingness to have a conversation when presented with new information, I wanted to know what Czuchrey thought about the war given what those who were running it knew at the time: It was unwinnable.

The war’s architect, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in 1963, is on tape saying, “We need a way to get out of Vietnam.”

In 1964, the year before he committed the United States to a full-scale war, President Lyndon Johnson told his national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, about Vietnam: “I don’t think it’s worth fighting for and I don’t think we can get out. It’s just the biggest damned mess.”

And still, 58,318 Americans, as many as 2 million Vietnamese civilians, and another million enemy combatants died.

I asked Czuchrey what he thought about LBJ and what he had done, and about Richard Nixon, who protracted the war even further.

To start, he said, he didn’t experience the war like most Americans. He had been in Europe for the most part since 1964 and his main source of information had been “Stars and Stripes,” the American military newspaper. Besides, he said, “It was immaterial.” There was so much and so many between him and a president that hating only the guy at the top would have been missing the forest for the trees.

I asked Czuchrey: “Given what you now know, would you have had a different view about going over there?”

“You don't ask anything easy, do you?” he said to me. “The quick answer is yes.” He would have had a different view, but he still would have gone.

“If … it came my turn to go, regardless of the reason, I would go. Would I go without thinking twice about it? Of course not,” he said. “I couldn’t refuse, I wouldn’t want to refuse.”

Czuchrey enlisted in the Air Force in 1964, after graduating from high school. He had given college some thought but, admittedly, he was not a great student. He said to himself that he could probably get an education and grow in the service.

I asked him how his family reacted to him joining the service.

“There was no actual conversation in the family that I can recall that was anything like: ‘Let’s sit down and talk about how this could have been prevented,’” he said. “They dealt with the issue at hand, and that was: ‘There you are; are you OK?’ A very immigrant mindset.”

A price paid

But the service did exact a personal toll.

He was sent to Europe with his new wife; they had been married only a year. He said that he had been sent on a number of temporary duty trips, which kept him away from his bride. “So that, I think, tainted her.” And, eventually his son as well.

He said that his first wife may not have been a fair conveyor of what was going on in the world. It wasn’t so much Vietnam; it was being the wife of a military man who just wasn’t around. Czuchrey said that his son did not talk to him for a long time.

He was self-aware, admitting that parachuting in and out of his son’s life for years damaged their relationship.

But it’s tough to fight heredity; he had his parents’ mindset – he was sent to war, he was dealing with the issue at hand.

As far as his son goes, Czuchrey said that he has broached what happened, though nothing specific. He said that it was received and kind of brushed off as: “That was then, this is now.”

He said, perhaps, that his son had the same mindset that he and his father had: You are growing with a family, and you have to deal with the business that is at hand. “Maybe it’s not the right way, but that’s the way I did it,” he said.

When he was sent east, it was to Thailand, from where bombing missions of North Vietnam were run. Czuchrey worked as a civil engineer. Somewhere in the spring or summer of 1970, he said, there was a severe shortage of combat help, and he volunteered to drop flares on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

“More a maze than a road, the trail disappeared, returned to view, dissolved, emerged, contracted, expanded, split, reunited, vanished, materialized,” is how Merrill A. McPeak, a Vietnam veteran and former Air Force chief of staff, described it.

The trail was how the North Vietnamese were able to continue a war where more bombs were dropped than during all of World War II – and that was just on Laos alone, which had officially remained neutral during the war. It total, as many as three times more explosives were used during the Vietnam War than during all of World War II.

I asked Czuchrey if he ever thought about the North Vietnamese, the enemy. “All the time,” he said. Obviously, he does not have an objective opinion of them, he said, but, given what he’s learned after the fact, he does, in some way, have admiration for them.

I asked him if he thought that the United States learned from Vietnam.

“The United States is not one person; one person might learn from the mistakes of Vietnam but can a country learn from that?” he asked.

“We all make mistakes,” he said, “but it’s what you do afterward that counts. If you couldn’t do it before, then you are damned if you don’t do it later. Because you will just do it again.”

After eight years of active-duty service, Czuchrey was discharged in 1972, and then joined the Air National Guard for another 15 years, retiring as a master sergeant.

He went to work for the railroad in Washington D.C., using his background in electrical engineering. He eventually became a supervisor for the Washington Terminal Company. In 1976, he was sent to Rensselaer.

Finding pride

Czuchrey had been in New York for a few years before, he said, things began to unravel; he divorced his wife, he said. “Thankfully, I directed myself (with the encouragement of a couple of fellow vets, he told me in our second meeting) to the VA, and not the nearest bar – when so many went the other way,” he said.

It was at the Veterans’ Administration hospital, years after returning home from war, that Czuchrey was diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder. “So, that’s what that is,” he thought to himself.

He was getting help, he was getting better. He then met Sylvia, his current wife, without whom, he said, he’d be up a certain creek. He doesn’t like to swear.

It was Sylvia, Czuchrey said, who pushed him to embrace being a veteran, “to take his awards and ribbons and put them in shadow boxes and put them on the wall.” He said that since then, he has developed a new kind of pride.

That new-found pride is how I came to meet Czuchrey; he is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders of New York, a voluntary honor guard. Many members of the Patriot Guard ride motorcycles and many are also veterans, but neither is required.

The Patriot Guard Riders were formed in 2005 as a reaction to protests by the Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of soldiers. Members of the church claimed that the deaths of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were God’s punishment for America’s tolerance of homosexuality.

The Patriot Guard Riders acted as a shield between the Westboro Baptist Church members and mourners.

I asked Czuchrey when we first met why he was a Patriot Guard Rider. And, he told me: “It’s giving due honor to those veterans who sacrificed so much for us at home.” Vietnam veterans especially, he said, have not received a real welcome home from the general public.

That was one of the reasons for this past weekend at Tawasentha Park, he told me in our second interview. “To try and restore a little bit of dignity, honor, and respect for what they should have received all those years ago and didn’t.”

I asked Czuchrey if he ever thinks about how different his life would have been had he not served.

He paused.

And repeated the question back to me.

“I kind of hope I would have made something out of myself, but I don't think that I would be the same person inside. I don't think I would have a strong appreciation for what it took to allow a country like this to accept a family like mine. I don’t think I would have been as appreciative of what I have if I hadn’t. But I kind of hope that I would be able to make something of myself.”

He did.

Corrected on May 15, 2018: The original version of this commentary had transposed the last two digits in the count of the Vietnam war dead; the count has been corrected from 58,381 to 58,318.

Joined: 08/12/2017 - 08:21
Getting the facts correct ...

Sean, you seem to have gone to great lengths to invalidate the "anchor baby" myth, as you call it - but you have lost all credibility in my eyes with facts, as you can't even get the number of names on the wall correct - which is 58,318, as of last year's additions. There is even a wreath with that number prominantly displayed in one of the pictures in this article. And, by the way, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has reported that there are now at least 4.5 MILLION anchor babies under the age of 18 in the United States - hardly a myth. I believe you owe Ed an apology.

As for Ed Czuchrey, MLH&R, brother! Thanks for being willing to share your story and observations.

Melissa Hale-Spencer's picture
Melissa Hale-Spencer
Joined: 05/07/2013 - 16:54
You're right — correct facts are important

Thank you for pointing out that we transposed the last two digits of the Vietnam war dead. We have already corrected it online and will run a print correction in our next edition.

The portion of Sean Mulkerrin’s commentary on the so-called “anchor babies,” however, needs no correction. The 4.5 million came from this Breitbart story in December, which was widely copied, but what the relevant document — a Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the 2017 DREAM Act — actually said was: “Using information from DHS and various immigration researchers, CBO estimates that about 4.5 million U.S. citizens under the age of 18 have at least one inadmissible or deportable parent.”

The CBO estimate that 4.5 million United States citizens have at least one inadmissible or deportable parent does not mean those 4.5 million children are “anchor babies,” conceived by parents so they could gain citizenship. Parents of a baby born in the United States face the same deportation as other illegal residents.

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