BELOIT - Marine Vietnam Veteran John Simpson only spent one year out of his 80 in Vietnam, but that year is still the longest. Living at Riverside Terrace in his golden years, he finds the images of war resurfacing with increasing speed and clarity.
Although his memories have been unwelcome visitors for most of his life, he's letting them in now. He has good friend and Riverside Terrace Activity Coordinator Brooke Monyelle to talk to and a team of supportive second graders at Powers Elementary School who participate in a moving Veterans Day program each year. He finally has the support he needs for the year he wishes he could forget.
Simpson's path to Vietnam was practically decided for him. His father was in the Navy and he had eight brothers who would all serve in the military. He and three of them would be in Vietnam, where John Simpson as well as his youngest brother Joe Simpson sustained injuries.
Simpson enlisted in 1959, and began his journey in Vietnam in 1964-1965 as part of the Echo Company Second Battalion Ninth Marines. He left the service in 1968.
Simpson served in the infantry in Da Nang Vietnam before he headed to the field. He worked on search and destroy missions in a landscape laden with deadly traps, booby traps and land mines. As platoon leader, he oversaw about 43 men.
"When you are going out in the field, you don't know if you are coming back. You lose your friends," Simpson said. "We lost about half of our company on one big mission. Someone could be here today and gone tomorrow."
It was only a matter of time before Simpson stepped on a land mine and sustained a serious back injury.
He ended up in a naval hospital in New York where he spent three months undergoing physical therapy before later receiving a medical discharge. While in the hospital he recalled a Veterans Day parade where returning troops were booed.
"It's something I didn't expect to see in the U.S.," Simpson said.
Following his service, Simpson would avoid wearing certain clothing which might out him as a Vietnam veteran. Reading a newspaper was difficult, especially if he saw a reference to war. Fireworks or loud noises would startle him. On occasion, he tried to talk to others about it, but no one seemed to understand. He eventually settled in the area to work at Hormel Foods, marry and raise his two children, Hononegah teacher Matt Simpson in Rockton and truck driver Gregg Simpson of Orfordville.
As the years went on, Simpson found his memories weren't going away.
"They come back more often than when it first happened. You'd think you get over it but you don't," he said.
He eventually needed to use a walker for his back problems associated with his battlefield injury.
When he moved to Riverside Terrace two years ago, he began to open up about his experiences to Monyelle. About five years ago he said he started to notice more positive recognition for Vietnam veterans.
He considered riding on the VetsRoll trip to see the monuments in Washington, D.C., but suffered too much back pain for the long coach ride.
However, support and love seemed to find him. He started noticing more schools in the area were doing veterans programs.
"It's good to see kids singing songs about the military. I didn't think I would ever see it," Simpson said.
He was especially touched by a yearly program at Powers Elementary School first started by second grade teacher Amy Fell six years ago. The program features a play written by Fell, songs, poems, handshakes and accolades.
"Everybody stands up and claps for veterans. It's our way to say thank you," Fell added.
Powers not only puts on a program for Riverside Terrace but also another program for student families.
"They sing all the military branch songs and memorize it all. They are in second grade. It's unbelievable how good they are. They come over and shake your hand," Simpson said.
Evie Karr, an 8-year-old who performed in the Powers program last year, said students practice a long time for the songs and play.
"It's important for the veterans to know that we do love them and to honor their hard work," Evie said. "The last song was nice because I could feel their hearts opening."
Although Veterans Day is emotional for Simpson, he said times have changed.
"A good majority of young people understand the sacrifices made," Simpson said.
After the Powers Veterans Day program, Simpson and other veterans at Riverside Terrace will have a program in their dining room followed by a USO party that evening with the Jack Farina Band.
These days when Simpson is asked about talking about his experiences, Simpson said he's more comfortable thanks to those who have honored his service. He can talk freely now and deal with his challenges.
"That's part of growing up," Simpson said.
Monyelle said Riverside Terrace pays close attention to veterans. As Vietnam veterans age, more of them will be coming through the assisting living facility. Staff are cautious with playing movies which could evoke painful memories and pay close attention to their needs.
Other veterans from Riverside Terrace include: Jack Ehle, National Guard/Army; Jim Kelley, Army; Glen Lee, Army in Korean War; Bill Briscoe, WW2 in Navy; Henry Bausum in Army and Airforce in WW2; and Ralph Irvin who was in the Army.