SIDNEY – Fifty years ago today, Guy Gruters was living through his fourth year in hell.
Then a captain in the U.S. Air Force, he was incarcerated as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. In all, he served five years and three months as a POW in some of the worst camps of the war, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” He endured unspeakable living conditions and horrendous torture.
On Sept. 16, he will speak about his experiences and how they have informed his life since his release in 1973. The 5:30 p.m. talk will be the keynote address of ceremonies to open an exhibit of the AVTT-TWF Traveling Wall, a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Shelby County Historical Society’s exhibit in Custenborder Park, 449 Riverside Drive, Sidney, also will include a field of crosses honoring America’s war dead since Vietnam. Gruters’s speech is one of four that have been scheduled throughout the weekend of the wall’s display.
Now living in Minster, Gruters flew more than 400 combat missions before he was shot down in December 1967 and “rescued” by the Viet Cong.
“People around the country have heard his story, but it’s been many years since he last spoke in Shelby County,” said historical society Director Tilda Phlipot. “While some of what he has to say may be hard to hear, it’s important to hear, and we are proud to be able to present him to an audience that recognizes what his history means to us today. The replica wall and the field of crosses will be solemn places. Mr. Gruters will help us all to better understand why that is so.”
Gruters earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star with Valor, the Prisoner of War Medal and 20 Air Medals.
Retired Army Col. David Taylor, of Medina, also a Silver Star medalist, and Sidney’s own Steven O’Meara, a retired Air Force veteran, will speak to groups of high schoolers and the public, Sept. 17 in the park at 10 a.m.
Taylor served four months in Vietnam before he was wounded and sent to a hospital in the U.S. for a yearlong recovery and rehabilitation. O’Meara was the fire chief at a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, when it was bombed in 2004.
“My talk is titled, ‘The Vietnam Wall, a Time to Remember.’” Taylor said. It will note that military sacrifices contributed to the world’s freedom and discuss what students can learn from those sacrifices.
“I think it’s important to thank veterans. I want to thank them in a special way, as one vet to another, and to recognize how they persevered to go far beyond the ordinary requirements ordained by the wearing of the uniform,” Taylor said.
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader in Vietnam, he was in a regular infantry unit. In the military hospital back home, he met the nurse whom he would eventually marry.
“The Army issued me a wife, and that was 51 years ago,” he laughed.
He is pleased that teens, as well as adults, will hear what he has to say.
“John Adams said everyone should have two educations: one should teach how to make a living, and the other, how to live,” Taylor said.”What I want to emphasize … is this occasion at the Vietnam wall is a good time to remember fundamental values.”
O’Meara served two tours in Iraq and his son has served two in Afghanistan. He is well acquainted with what it feels like to fight for a population in a country only to have that country fall into enemy hands when the U.S. troops pulled out. He will address some of those feelings when he talks to the crowd.
“I’ll steer away from the political aspect and focus on the personal aspect. ISIS went from Syria into Iraq. I know what Vietnam and Afghan vets feel like. It’s disheartening to see it, but we know we did our best,” he said. “The majority of men and women serving don’t make decisions. We follow orders. With the whole country, we’ll keep our head up and move forward.”
O’Meara was responsible for the safety of 3,000 Air Force, Army and Marine personnel at the Kirkuk base when rockets hit munitions stores, which erupted into a blaze that raged for 20 hours and smoldered for days afterward. He and his crew worked under the assumption that chemical weapons were in play and moved equipment and assets around to keep them from catching fire. The only casualty of the attack was one man who suffered a broken leg.
Students from Anna, Botkins, Christian Academy, Fairlawn, Jackson Center and Sidney school systems are scheduled to attend the talks and visit the wall and field of crosses. Veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Desert Storm, and Iraq/Afghanistan will be in the field to meet students and members of the public one-on-one and answer questions. Fort Loramie and Russia students will tour the exhibits at a later time.
Other schools are welcome to take high school students to the Sept. 17 morning session or to arrange for tours at other times. Teachers or administrators should call Phlipot at 937-498-1653 to make arrangements. There is no charge to attend.
Another Vietnam Army veteran will give remarks during closing ceremonies at 2 p.m., Sept. 19.
Jon Baker, of Houston, was the keynote speaker the first time the replica wall was in Sidney. This year, he will close out its final historical society appearance.
“It’s fitting that Jon will do this,” Phlipot said. He agrees.
“(Having the wall here three times) has made it possible for me to see the real wall in Washington,” Baker said. “I want to thank the community for that.” He plans to talk about that turn-around in his own life, as well as how attitudes have changed toward Vietnam veterans across the country.
“I’m going to talk a little history of Vietnam and the history of the Vietnam vet, how we were treated when we came home and how we’ve been redeemed. The Vietnam soldier I feel the most badly for of the ones who came home are the ones who lost their lives early, like from Agent Orange, before the redemption of the soldier. They blamed the war on the soldier in those days instead of Washington. Now, 87 percent of the population today holds the Vietnam vet in high esteem.”
Sidney Mayor Mike Barhorst and Shelby County commissioner Robert Guillozet will offer reflective remarks before the event closes.
All the speeches are open to the public. Admission is free. Nonschool attendees should take lawn chairs.
A memorial flame will burn at the field of crosses from the field’s opening, Sept. 12, through the closing ceremonies. The field and the wall exhibits will be open 24 hours a day from the time each opens through those ceremonies.
Other activities planned for the week include concerts by the Sidney Civic Band and classic rock band Outrider, a cruise-in, a bench dedication, a motorcycle parade to lead the wall into town, and opening ceremonies for the field of crosses.