Person of the Week: Woody Blanchard

By BRITTNEY MANGUM,

“The toll is etched in rock of stone/For those that paid the price alone” (Blanchard 9-10).

During the Vietnam War, more than 58,000 members of the military lost their lives, and more than 150,000 men were wounded. The men who returned home were not welcomed home with open arms and extravagant parades and celebration. Instead, they returned to a country that had rejected them.

Because of how they were treated when they returned from the war, many of the Vietnam veterans have not said very much about their experiences during or after the war.

Woody Blanchard is one of the Vietnam veterans who stayed quiet for a long time.

“I have not talked much about the experience—like many other veterans,” said Blanchard, “but was it what happened over there that forced me to remain mostly silent, or was it how we, as returning veterans, were treated over here?”

He spent 13 months over in Vietnam.

When he returned from the war, Woody had to wait a few days before he was able to return home. He had his first experience of not blending in in the most unexpected of places.

“I had managed air traffic control at one of the world’s busiest air ports for a year, so it would be natural for me to visit the control tower and be among fellow controllers while paperwork was processed to send me on home,” recalled Blanchard. “I was in great error. When they learned that I had just returned from Vietnam, they avoided me like the proverbial plague—no conversation—nothing.”

Not only had the general public rejected the Vietnam veterans, but the military men who did not serve in Vietnam also rejected the returning veterans. The veterans quickly learned that in order to fit in with society, it was not safe to mention being in Vietnam. Woody did what almost every other Vietnam veteran did.

“I soon found out that the veterans just did not talk about action and experiences to non-veterans, but poured out their souls to others who had served in that conflict,” stated Blanchard.

For years, Woody Blanchard kept his experiences and awards from Vietnam a secret from everyone who wasn’t part of the conflict—even his family.

“My sisters never knew I had received the bronze star and the Vietnamese Honor medal. I never talked about it until I applied for a bronze star tag on my vehicle,” said Blanchard. “That was the first time I had acknowledged the medal since our withdrawal.”

After years of silence, Woody Blanchard decided that it was time to end the silence and speak up about all of his experiences in Vietnam. He was an air traffic controller in the 1964th Communications Group. While there, he was over the forth busiest airport for a year and helped the control tower at Nha Trang Air Base set the record for landings and take-offs in one day. They would usually have 40,000 landings and take-offs each month.

He witnessed the TET offensive from the control tower. 

“We could see the North Vietnamese battle flag flying at the end of the runway, so we couldn’t take off that way. We had to take off into the wind and land nose to nose. We pulled it off without a hitch. If anyone went north, he was shot at. We had 2,000 take-offs and landings in 24 hours,” recalled Woody.

Doing what should have been impossible in air control wasn’t the hardest part of the job, though.

“The hardest part of the job,” remembered Blanchard, “was hearing the men’s voices when the air crafts were going down.”

In fact, while searching on the internet, he found his part in an investigation involving a helicopter that went down. He was able to see what he was only able to hear during the war itself.

“Listening to the voices in that chopper going down has stayed with me a long time,” said Blanchard.

He had spoken with a forward air controller whose plane went down, but they were unable to locate the bodies for years. The remains of the pilot were discovered years later, and when Blanchard saw the picture of the pilot, he was finally able to put a face with the voice he was familiar with so many years ago.

While he was there, Woody took photos of the different things he saw around him. Out of all the pictures that he took, the one which stands out the most to him is of a young Vietnamese child peering through the barbed wire fence to see into the base.

When he was leaving the war, Woody Blanchard was given the Vietnamese Honor Medal, the highest non-combat medal that could be given in Vietnam. For 50 years, he was unable to translate it, but he knew that it was an honor to be given. After 50 years, someone was finally able to translate the award for him.

The award states that it is for “honor and service regarding sincere cooperation and enthusiastic aid to the Vietnam Military Republic.”

Blanchard does not think of himself when he reminisces on what took place involving Vietnam. He lovingly remembers all those who lost their lives and returned home to be treated as if they were criminals, just like he was. In fact, he kept the voices of all those who fought in Vietnam in mind when he wrote a poem, “At What Cost,” to be read at the presentation of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. The poem was written to express a hope that Blanchard has:

“I only hope America will never again forget those that stepped forward then and those at risk now.”

His poem perfectly portrays the emotions and memories of all those who fought in Vietnam.

At What Cost

At what cost but sad expense

The price so high and none such since

The toll was called, stakes were high

A tally drawn, for some must die

A time of friendship, a time of fear

Of lasting bonds—so few will hear

For some a pride and some a sham

And thus the cost of Vietnam

The toll is etched in rock of stone

For those that paid the price alone

In angeled splendor with voices mute

In quiet solace and honored tribute

A price too paid by those returned

Price of shame, a price unlearned

Touched with caring, touched with hurt

Cast asunder—trodden like dirt

Hidden in shadows like common thieves

Unhonored and unwanted like fallen leaves

Yet, unspoken pride in duty calling

A toll taken, of buddies fallen

For the names upon that wall so strong

Paid the price—the price so long

For those returned gave silent thanks

That shame fell not upon etched ranks

A price paid once is duty called

To sorb the shame in conscience palled

The greatest pain beneath the sky

Is to hurt and know not why

But to heal the wounds and salve the pain

And hope down deep—t’was not in vain