By Margaret Downing, REPORTER

 The annual “Tribute to Veterans” was held in the City of Loves Park complex on Nov. 10. Turnout was great – and thanks to the Harlem High School Choraleers and the school’s Wind Ensemble, along with remarks made by officials on stage, attendees were quickly put into a patriotic mood. Mike Robinson acted as Master of Ceremonies. The keynote speaker at this year’s event was U.S. Army veteran, Mary J. Nicholls. Mayor Darryl Lindberg spoke and noted that the City is always proud to host this event each year. He also pointed out that the date, Nov. 10, “is the 241st birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps.” The Clifford Johnson VFW Post No. 9759, U.S. Marine Corps League Color Guard, presented and retreated colors, plus performed a three-shot rifle volley at the end. Those in attendance were led in the Pledge of Allegiance by fifth grade Harlem District No. 122 students Trey Smith and Ineishia McGee of Olson Park Elementary School. Rev. Bobby Sheets from Riverside Community Church gave the invocation. Harlem High School Senior Madelyn Minnick read her award winning essay, “What Veterans Day Means to Me.” She pointed out that her generation “doesn’t know what it’s like not to be free, and we should all be grateful every day to our Vets.” Chandler Ralston, Harlem High School Senior, gave a presentation on the Harlem Veterans Project: “Impact of War.” Ralston has already joined the Army. Tim Perian directed the school’s wind ensemble, and Kathy Broaddus directed the Choraleers. Harlem students Emerald Kounthapanya and Brianna Peterson presented Taps and Echo outside at the Field of Honor at the close of the event.

Keynote speaker Mary J. Nicholls moved to Rockford with her family at the age of four and is a graduate of Rockford West High School. She enlisted in the Army in 1966 and served as a Staff Sergeant in Vietnam. She was stationed at Long Binh Post, about 30 miles north of Saigon. For her service, she received the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Bronze Star Medal. In December 1969, Mary returned to the States and worked at the Pentagon for 28 years in various positions. In 2004, Mary returned to Rockford and became involved in Veterans activities. She is the past President of the Rockford Charter Chapter VietNow, and past Senior Vice Commander at the Loves Park VFW. She currently serves on the Board of the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Nicholls’ presentation was as follows:

“I grew up in Rockford and after completing school I worked at several different jobs, all the while knowing there was this great big world out there and knowing I wanted to see it all. I enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) hoping to see some of the world. After basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama and job training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, I was assigned to Fort Ord, California where I worked in an office. After about a year at Fort Ord, I received orders for Vietnam. Fort Ord was an Infantry Training Center. Anyone who received orders for Vietnam was required to go to a weeklong training session before leaving for Vietnam. I spent a week with about 100 men and two nurses. We had two days of classes telling us about Vietnam and the people there. Then there were two days in the boonies of Fort Ord getting attacked, attacking – in other words, ‘playing soldier.’ On the fifth day we learned how to care for and fire an M-16 rifle. Most of the women sent to Vietnam were not given any firearm training at all. I learned later that women other than Nurses had been in Vietnam as early as 1962. Most of the women other than Nurses arrived in 1966 and continued coming until 1973. The first women to arrive were assigned jobs in Saigon working for the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Eventually, there was a WAC detachment at Long Binh to provide support to the U.S. Army Vietnam Headquarters. There were women from the Army, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, and the Navy serving in many parts of Vietnam. Once I was finally on my way, I had no idea what to expect. After a very long plane ride, we landed at Bien Hoa Air Base. It turned out I was stationed on Long Binh, a large Army post about 30 miles north of Saigon. The WAC detachment there had about 100 women in it at any one time. I was assigned to work at headquarters for the Army Chief of Staff for Communications-Electronics in an administrative position. I worked with a great group of men. They were – and still are like brothers to me. We worked together all day, usually had dinner together, drank together, and supported each other always.”

“During my time in Vietnam the headquarters building was hit by a mortar round only once. Of all the top-secret facilities at the headquarters, that one mortar round hit the post office. It was at night, so thankfully no one was injured. We experienced mortar attacks several nights a week and we had to go to the bunkers and stay there until the attack was over. Sometimes the attack was short and sometimes not so short – but we still had to be at work the next morning. Long Binh was a relatively safe place to be if one had to be in a combat zone. In February 1969 the enemy got inside the fence at Long Binh. While some people went the other way, I was near the fighting taking pictures. That may not have been the smartest thing I ever did, but no harm came to me and I got some good pictures. During that attack, a man sitting at his desk in the headquarters building was struck in his thigh by a bullet that came through the roof from a gunship that was flying above and aiming at the enemy. A down side of being in a combat zone was seeing helicopters flying the wounded to the nearby evacuation hospital.”

“I, like so many others, lost good friends to combat and to illness in Vietnam. One friend, a local man named Jerry Wickham, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam. During the 18 months I was in the country, I lost four more close friends. I’ve no idea how many people I knew made it back to the States only to die of war-related injuries or Agent Orange-induced illness later. Of the 58,272 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. eight are women.” “After a year in Vietnam, I extended my tour by six months because I only had a few months left on my enlistment. I had a good job, and I couldn’t see going to another Army assignment for just a short period.

MARGARET DOWNING, PHOTO - The Journal. Shown from left: prior to the start of the “Tribute to Veterans” Nov. 10 are color guard members of the Clifford Johnson V.F.W. Post No. 9759 with keynote speaker Mary Nicholls, John Paddock, Glenn Widner, Marvin Mathees, Phjilip Pfeifer, and Nicholls.

Shown from left: prior to the start of the “Tribute to Veterans” Nov. 10 are color guard members of the Clifford Johnson V.F.W. Post No. 9759 with keynote speaker Mary Nicholls, John Paddock, Glenn Widner, Marvin Mathees, Phjilip Pfeifer, and Nicholls.

On a more pleasant side, there were occasional trips to Saigon and one very nice trip to Vung Tau, which is a beach community on the South China Sea. On one of the trips to Saigon, we visited a Vietnamese Women’s Army detachment, which was very interesting and quite a bit different than ours. On other trips we went to the Saigon Zoo and the USO. We traveled by military bus, jeep or helicopter for these trips. I also had trips to Hawaii, Japan, and Australia. Also, while still in the Army I was able to travel to Guam, Anchorage, Alaska and several countries in Europe. So, as you can see, my dream of seeing something of our world did come true.”

“I left the Army after Vietnam and came back to Rockford. In 1970 I ended up in Washington, D.C. at the Pentagon for the rest of my working life. Over my 28 years there I was pleased to find myself working with some of the men I had worked with in Vietnam. I retired in 1998 and was still living in northern Virginia on Sept. 11, 2001, the day the airplane flew into the Pentagon, killing so many innocent people. I spent the day trying to track down friends who worked at the Pentagon. Thankfully, all those I knew were safe.”

“I decided to return to Rockford in 2004, and I was surprised to learn how many people, some military and Veterans included, had no idea that there had been enlisted women in Vietnam. When wearing my Veteran’s uniform many people assume I was a nurse. I had one woman tell me my uniform wasn’t real because everyone knows there were no women in Vietnam. I am very proud of my service in Vietnam. It shaped the person I am. I am still in touch with several friends I made while I was there. We exchange long letters, usually at Christmas time, telling each other about our past year. In 2015 the women of the Vietnam Women Veterans Association compiled a book of our experiences. Its title is ‘Women Vietnam Veterans – Our Untold Stories.’”

“I now belong to several Veteran’s organizations and am involved in numerous Veteran activities which keep me very busy! Veterans Day salutes all who served, regardless of when or where. It is our day, which we equally share with our families who served and sacrificed alongside of us. To all the Veterans here today I want to say thank you for your service to our country and I thank all of you for being here today to honor Veterans.”

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