Tahlequah Daily Press

November 11, 2013

Veterans recount their service

Art Lawler Staff Writer adanewslawler@cableone.net

Ada —      Two of the soldiers who attended Monday’s Veteran’s Day breakfast at the Walter Wise Hut No. 70 American Legion Hall recounted their experiences in Vietnam. More than 100 veterans enjoyed pancakes and a time of appreciation.


     When Dean Roark, a foster child, first joined the U.S. Army back in 1969, he was a short, bony kid of 5-7, 125 pounds.

     At 17, he had just graduated from Enid High School and had been emancipated from foster care.

     The Army knew just what to do with a soldier who was anxious to fight and could fit into small holes.

     His job in Vietnam was to go into those tunnels armed with a .357 Magnum seeking to find and destroy the enemy before the same could be done to him — in a split second.

     “My chances were about 50-50, if that,” he estimated on his chances of surviving such assignments.

     Even as a teenager, he knew he wasn’t going to win the coin toss forever.

     Before he could suffer the fate of almost 59,000 of his fellow soldiers, it was discovered that Roark was an accurate shooter with his M-14 rifle.

     It didn’t take him long to earn his way into Special Operations. His job was to take out the enemy from long range or to spot the enemy in plenty of time to warn others.

     Sometimes he got too close. Twice he got stabbed. Once he got shot. Always, he survived.

     He proudly calls Special Forces “the best of the Rangers.”

     It nearly got him killed, but in the end, he had three Purple Hearts, was a Green Beret and later trained 200 Green Beret candidates.

     Not that he was through with combat.

     He made a career out of the military, fighting in Desert Storm, Grenada, Panama and Somalia.

     He earned his education between battle assignments, first with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hawaii, then a master’s from MIT.

     Standing outside the American Legion in Ada on Monday, he knew how fortunate he was to be standing at all.

     Those who served him breakfast Monday morning knew how lucky they were to have Special Ops people like Roark looking out for them.

     Nowadays, his excitement consists of riding his motorcycle with other veterans on special occasions.

     He lives in Vanoss  — and that’s where he wants to stay. “It’s nice and peaceful,” he said. “I can step out into the backyard and just listen to the crickets.”

     “That’s the only thing that saved me,” he said. He doesn’t mince words when he speaks of war. “I hate war,” he said. “All wars. They’re stupid.”

     He said the first thing he saw when he landed in Vietnam was another plane with large letters on the side saying, LBJ Construction.

     “Some people made a lot of money off that war,” he said.

     After retiring from the military in 1992, he went to work for Enviro in Seminole working in electronics. He remembers the insults Vietnam veterans were often greeted with when they came home. “I believe in their right to protest,” he said. “I’m just not a protester. I think a lot of those people should come to where I was  and see what I saw. They might come away feeling a little different about things.”


     Rich Putnam got in and out of Vietnam just as the war heated up.

     The only reason he got out was because of the shrapnel scattered through his hand and most of the left side of his body.

     “I was in and out of there in six months,” says Putnam, “but I was in Southeat Asia for in Okinawa with the Marines as a paratrooper for two years.”

     He was with a brigade at Bien Hoa that had 153 troops when they went in. A year later, they had 11 men left, and eight of those had been wounded.  

     By the time the October 1965 invasion occurred, Putnam was already wounded.

     He still has shrapnel in the left side of his body and was in Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco at the time of the invasion.

    He received a Purple Heart for his injury and a Medal of Honor for his efforts with the 173rd Division.

     He was injured when the Viet Cong exploded a mine near him. It hit the soldier behind him, cracking his shoulder bone and causing serious injury, but men survived.

     Like Roark, Putnam came out of his Vietnam experience determined to bypass the PTSD syndrome that was crippling so many of their fellow soldiers, but he   admits he wound up having some hard years.

     Putnam did his best to put himself together. The military put him through undergraduate and master's-level work at North Texas, then he paid for his own Ph.D.

     Putnam became a psychologist and, for a while, he counseled other Vietnam veterans. “After a while, I stopped doing that. I was too close to it.”

     In fact, he said he found himself suffering some of the same symptoms he was trying to help his fellow soldiers get past.

     On the day he was injured, he was confronted by Charley Company on the right and Alpha Company on the left. He remembers going into a nearby creek and crawling back to report what was happening.

     What transpired from that report was an 18-hour firefight.

     He still doesn’t have full use of his left hand, and there’s still shrapnel down his left leg.

     He said he got into psychology as a form of self-therapy.

     “It didn’t work,” he said.

     Today, he’s the chaplain at the American Legion. He was formerly a professor in East Central University’s psychology department.

     His father was a Baptist minister. Religion has always been important to him.

     He was getting ready to go to Oklahoma City to speak in behalf of the Veterans Commission when he was  interviewed at the Ada breakfast Monday.

     There are politicians wanting to cut funding. He’ll be there to try to talk them out of it.

     On the surface, he appears to have fully recovered, but he still feels the metal. He still feels the psychological scars. Still, he gains peace from his service to others.