City council honors Vietnam veterans with proclamation

Two Island veterans share their thoughts on the agenda bill.

Mercer Island resident and Vietnam veteran Bob Harper hadn’t heard of National Vietnam War Veterans Day until recently, so he took it into his own hands to bring attention to the date, March 29, on a local level.

Harper, 78, contacted Mercer Island City Councilmember Jake Jacobson and suggested that council pen a proclamation to recognize the day, and soon Harper was writing it himself. At its regular meeting on March 21, council approved the proclamation to mark March 29 as 2023 Vietnam Veterans Day on Mercer Island.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women who served in Vietnam, and we recognize the tremendous sacrifices they and their families made on behalf of our country,” reads part of the document, which was signed by Mayor Salim Nice.

A member of the Air Force, Harper was a navigator and flew EC-47s during a highly classified electronic reconnaissance mission from 1968-69 in Vietnam. After his return to the United States, he flew C-141s out of Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, California, for the following three years and returned to Vietnam at least once a month during that juncture. Harper, who was a first lieutenant, added that he marked his 24th birthday in jungle survival school in the Philippines en route to Vietnam.

Harper noted that some Vietnam vets faced rough situations when they returned stateside after their tours.

“When a lot of guys came home from Vietnam, there was no hometown parade and that kind of thing for them. Some of them had kind of a bad time coming home, depending on where they arrived. If they arrived through a commercial terminal like San Francisco or SeaTac or something like that, a lot of them didn’t get a very welcoming arrival if they were in uniform, and that was really kind of too bad,” said Harper who has lived on Mercer Island since 1995.

“Things have changed now, people say, ‘Thanks for your service.’ And kind of a welcome home is, particularly for the Vietnam vets, is something that’s nice to hear,” he added.

Harper returned to the states through McChord Air Force Base in Pierce County and was welcomed home by his family.

According to the proclamation, more than 2.6 million American men and women served in the Vietnam War, and 58,318 were killed in action; 153,372 were wounded in action; 778 were prisoners of war; and 1,584 are still missing in action.

The document also reads that in 2012, President Obama proclaimed March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day — marking the 50th anniversary of the departure of the last American troops from Vietnam — and in 2017, President Trump signed it into law.

On Mercer Island, the 100-year-old VFW building at 1836 72nd Ave. SE features a brass plaque at “Patriot’s Plaza” that is emblazoned with the names of 11 Islanders who were killed in action in Vietnam: Second Lieutenant John Francis Bergerson; Specialist Four Ransom Craig Cyr; Private First Class Michael Dennis Frost; Specialist Five Bradford Mark Graham; Warrant Officer James Arthur Johansen; Corporal Richard Otis Krogh; Specialist 4 Larry Arnold Simonson; Lance Corporal Leonard Peter Sparkman; Warrant Officer James Richard Waldowski; Corporal David Howard Warner; and Corporal Darryl Whitney Wright.

Another Island Vietnam veteran, Mike Gazarek, 80, served in the Navy during the war from 1967-68 and then 1969-71. Aboard ships, he and his crew would chase aircraft carriers, provide gunfire support and more.

“I’m proud of what I did, I’m proud of where I was, I’m proud of who I served with and nobody can take that away,” said Gazarek, who has lived on the Island since 1985.

He comes from a family of seven children and received immense support from them and his wife-to-be upon returning from Vietnam.

Speaking at the 61-year mark of the anniversary, Gazarek is appreciative that the local council is placing March 29 in the spotlight. It’s critical to approve the proclamation, he added.

“Civilians don’t realize what it’s like to be in harm’s way,” he said. “I really think that my brothers, especially the ones that really fought in country, the Army guys, Marines, they did the heavy lifting, (and) really deserve as much recognition as we can hand out. In some respects, it’s hard to articulate — you just kind of had to be there.”

Camaraderie amongst those who served in Vietnam was crucial, and it remains that way today, said Gazarek, who met Harper roughly 15 to 20 years ago during a VFW Post 5760 gathering on the Island. They became good friends and together have supported their fellow veterans and lent a sturdy hand during VFW activities.

The Mercer Island VFW building features “Patriot’s Plaza,” which includes pavers honoring local veterans and a memorial plaque to remember those Islanders who were killed in Vietnam. Reporter file photo

The Mercer Island VFW building features “Patriot’s Plaza,” which includes pavers honoring local veterans and a memorial plaque to remember those Islanders who were killed in Vietnam. Reporter file photo