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Revisiting Vietnam, veteran from Kenmore finds a transformed country

Richard Szczepaniec, 70

Hometown: Buffalo

Residence: Kenmore

Branch: Army

Rank: Specialist fourth class

War zone: Vietnam

Years of service: 1967-69

Most prominent honor: Vietnam Service Medal

Specialty: Infantry

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

During his years at the University at Buffalo back in the ’60s, Richard Szczepaniec served in the ROTC with a goal of becoming an Air Force pilot, knowing full well that it could be his ticket to Vietnam.

But in the middle of his senior year as an economics major, the Air Force informed Rich Szczepaniec that the hearing in his left ear was diminished and that he did not qualify to be an officer.

Determined to serve his country following his graduation, he enlisted in the Army instead as the ground war in Vietnam was starting to hit full intensity.

“I tried the Marines and Navy, and they wouldn’t take me for the same reason as the Air Force. But the Army said it wasn’t a problem,” Szczepaniec says.

Szczepaniec, now 70, recalls his introduction to the serious business of war. Assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade after arriving in Vietnam in 1968, he says, the plane ride up to the Central Highlands on a C-130 at night concluded with a harrowing landing.

“Looking down and seeing some lights and then having to make a steep dive for the airfield to avoid having the plane’s belly shot out, I realized that I was really in Vietnam and headed for the infantry,” he says.

Yet any ideas of pursuing the enemy would have to wait. Szczepaniec’s college degree landed him work as a bookkeeper at the officers’ club at An Khe for six months.

“I was sort of like part of the club’s administration. It was easy. We had Vietnamese day laborers who would do the cleaning and we would supervise them,” Szczepaniec says, adding that in addition to his bookkeeping duties, he tended bar and cooked.

While there, an old family connection paved the way for yet another unexpected break.

“When I was working at the club, I met Lt. Tom Rozek, who was a Canisius College graduate, and his father and my father had worked together at Kittinger Furniture,” Szczepaniec says. “He picked me up as his driver for the S5 military assistance team. The goal was to win the hearts and minds of the local people by helping them.”

Among the projects in which Szczepaniec was involved were the construction of a market and a hamlet for villagers that was fortified to prevent attacks by the Viet Cong. He also drove off the beaten path with a Vietnamese language translator to remote villages, scheduling clinic visits for villagers as part of the Medical Civic Action Program, or MEDCAP.

“We’d return at the appointed time and provide security, while a doctor and a couple medics would give basic medical treatment, something they’d never had,” he says.

And though he later learned that his translator had previously served as a Viet Cong guerrilla, Szczepaniec says he never raised his weapon.

“I have pictures of myself sitting in my jeep with crowds of children and adults around me,” he says. “I make no bones about the fact that my experience in Vietnam was not bad. I never had to shoot anybody, and I was never shot at.”

But, he says, there were close calls.

“We had mortar shells that landed on the base. And out on the roads, there were what you would call today improvised explosive devices,” he says. “I’d seen trucks that were turned over by these booby traps just after we had gone by. I also spent many a night on perimeter guard duty, and luckily nothing ever happened.”

When Rozek’s tour concluded, Szczepaniec was reassigned to a communications section, running a switchboard in a bunker and at other times stringing telephone wires or ordering replacement parts.

Blessed to leave Vietnam unscathed, he returned to civilian life in May 1969 and earned a master’s degree in business administration at UB, paving the way for a career that concluded in 1999 when he retired from Scott Aviation as a contracts administrator.

Throughout the years, he says, his positive memories of Vietnam remained with him, and the idea of one day returning took root.

“Vietnam was and probably always will be the greatest adventure of my life. I wanted to go back there and relive my youth,” Szczepaniec says.

He fulfilled that yearning last February, returning as a tourist with his wife of 42 years, the former Sue Ann Zwanzig.

Szczepaniec says, “People asked me, ‘Why do you want to go back?’ I’d say, ‘First of all, I didn’t have a bad experience, and I wanted to relive my youth and visit where I had been and places I’d only heard about.’ When I served there, I had said that the mountains and beaches were beautiful and that someday it would be a tourist destination, and my prophecy has come true.”

He also discovered that progress had erased the Vietnam he had known.

“My former Army base was no longer there,” he says. “There were one or two foundations from buildings, and the rest of it was civilian housing and streets. The nearby village that had been like a two-lane road with souvenir shops and bars was now a four-lane road with sidewalks and four-story buildings. Even the Roman Catholic church was rebuilt. After 46 years, there was very little that remained of war damage or the American military presence.”

The trip, though, was anything but a disappointment. The Vietnamese were kind and friendly and expressed no animosity toward Americans, he says, and it felt good to see a prospering Vietnam.

“It’s rather ironic that we were there to stop communism,” he says. “Like China, they have been going to free markets while we have been moving toward bigger government.”

Szczepaniec also has another ironic observation about his trip to Vietnam.

“You can go back in physical space,” he says, “but you can’t go back in time.”