Walter H. Coelho
Born: January 5, 1949
Lived in Portsmouth for 17 years
Walter H. Coelho
Specialist 5th Class
Commendations: See details
- US Army
National Defense Service Medal; Vietnam Campaign Medal with 60 Device; 2 O/S Bars; Vietnam Service Medal; Army Commendation Medal; Expert Badge Rifle M16; Sharpshooter Badge Rifle M14.
Army Engineers. HHC 75th ENGR HN (WDYHTO) Fort George G Meade (Maryland) FIRST USA.
Cate McLaughlin Oral History Project: Summary & Critique
During this Memorial Day weekend, I interviewed for the project, Wally Coelho, my aunt-by-marriage’s father who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Wally is one of the kindest people I have ever known. He’s an extremely generous, uplifting man, the type you instantly love. Part of his character, comes from the way he’s chosen to move past his experiences during the war. Wally says that all soldiers have PTSD, and many aren’t able to cope with the intense psychological demands required to lead a normal life after war. Wally, however, has used those memories to keep him going, and as he lives his life, he is constantly working to honor those that didn’t make it back with him. He volunteers at the Bristol Veterans home several times a week, he is the treasurer for Disabled American Vets, and is in the National DAV as chief of staff. He is on the Governor’s council for Veteran Affairs, which deals with things like making sure the VA hospital is in good condition, and he works on the Library of Congress National History Project, Voices of War, where he interviews veterans of different wars, mainly women. Because none of this is enough, he is a National Service Officer, so he makes sure everyone is in the VA system that should be. He is a trustee of The Veterans of Foreign Wars, and works with the scholarship programs for Patriot Pen and Voice of Democracy, as well as scholarship programs for eagle scouts and girl scouts. He also works on the Gold Star Family Project, which gets people together to help families who have lost their child in war. Most people wouldn ‘t care this much, yet Wally does. He does all this volunteer work into his retirement because he says it keeps hims serving. Wally, in one way or another, will always serve. It’s what keeps him going. This is his story:
Wally was 1 8 when he enlisted with his friend Val on “the buddy system.” He had just finished high school, and had decided not to go to college, so his father had him decide between getting a job, or entering the service. Wally chose the service, and when he joined, draft notice moved up his entry so despite being promised a summer, he began his training two weeks after school got out. He enlisted very unaware of the politics, and the events surrounding the war, including the heavy protest movement that was passing through the nation. Most of the young men who joined, he told me, weren ‘t much more informed about it than he was. They were still high school boys, involved with high school things, such as school work or girlfriends. Wally at the time was dating his wife of 46 years who he would marry before he left to Vietnam.
In the Vietnam War, you weren’t divided into units based on where you lived, as you had been in other wars, you were sent out individually. Wally, still a high school boy at heart, was sent all alone to North Carolina to begin his training. He excelled. For individual training, he was taught to be a carpenter for the Army Corps of Engineers. Again, he did very well. They then sent him to the NCO academy where he learned to build larger things such as bridges. At the NCO academy he was taught by civilians, and told that his class would be kept in the school as instructors, as opposed to being sent over to the war. Because he wouldn’t be fighting, Wally asked his girlfriend to marry him, delighted with the prospect of 6 more months of schooling, and that he had escaped the fighting. This was not to be. The Tet Offensive were a series ofNorth Vietnamese surprise attacks that started in the late hours of January the 30th 1967- March 28 1968. The operation was successful, and as a result many soldiers were killed. The army was now in desperate need of reinforcements and could no longer afford to allow a group of trained soldiers to stay home as instructors. This meant Wally would be fighting, and that his wedding had to be either pushed up, or postponed. It was decided they would marry beforehand, and two weeks later, Wally left to Vietnam.
Wally arrived at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. It’s a picturesque area filled with sandy white beaches and clear blue water with a backdrop of the Vietnamese jungle. It was also far from the fighting. However Wally only stayed there a week or so before he was told he and his company were heading outside the city of Dalat. They were dropped into complete jungle, 100 miles north of the city, and told to clear that area, build a compound, and the 100 mile road to Dalat. This daunting task was assigned to group of soldiers, the majority of whom were reallyjust kids not long out of highschool. They began with clearing the land and creating the living spaces they nicknamed hootches. They went on to construct guard towers, mess halls, offces, the dayroom, and the communication center. While they were doing all this work, they were subject to mortar attacks and snipers at night, sent to disrupt their rest, and possibly kill them. Locals gravitated towards them for their food and protection. Most were grateful of the Americans’ presence, however none of the soldiers could be quite sure if civilians that worked with them by day, shot at them alongside the Viet Cong by night. 7 or 8 year old children, could also present a very serious danger to the soldiers, for they would be wired by the Viet Cong to detonate near soldiers, creating victims of bombs and compassion.
Every three weeks soldiers were sent on border patrols. They went around the perimeter to make sure no enemies had infiltrated the boundaries. Many men were lost on these missions into the jungle. Snipers were hidden in the foliage and landmines were planted all over. Everyone was terrified, not only for their lives, but for what they might see. For Wally thoughts of his wife back home were what kept him going. But when he returned back home, he was met by not only her and his family, but a nation with no respect for what he and his fellow soldiers had just experienced. He was even told when leaving Vietnam, not to wear his uniform through the airport, for soldiers who did were often spat at or called baby-killers.
Because of the lack of respect, and recognition he received as a Veteran when he first return, Wally works into his retirement to make sure that other veterans are treated differently by the community. Perhaps Wally is the only upside to the disgraceful exhibition of disrespect our nation showed to it’s soldiers who served in Vietnam, because he is driven by all the hardships and challenges in his life, and people like that don’t come around often.
I really enjoyed this assignment. I was able to learn about a period of time that really interested me. I was also able to get to know someone better than I did before. But when I talked to Wally, I wasn ‘t only given the opportunity to get to know him better, but I was also able to learn about what it’s like to be a soldier and what the experience of war does to a person. This experience is something that I will cherish for years to come and I am really glad I was able to do it. Thanks Mr. Tierney! 🙂
COMMUNITY SERVICE & VOLUNTEERING
Vice Commander, Past Treasurer Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Rhode Island Chapter 15 Quartermaster/Treasurer, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 5390 Portsmouth Rhode Island
Treasurer, Bristol Veterans Counsel
Chairman Scholarship Committee Voice of Democracy, Patriot Pen Scholarships VFW Post 5390
Treasurer, Town of Portsmouth Veterans Honor roll Committee
Interviewer, Library of Congress Veterans History Project Voices of War
Guest Speaker, graduating classes Surface Warfare Officers School Navigation Class Newport RI on behalf of the DAV
Volunteer, Rhode Island Veterans Home Bristol
Committee Member MiniMAC (VA Healthcare Management Advisory Council)
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) webmaster, designed and maintain website
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter Veterans Service Officer
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5390 Veterans Service Officer
Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Officer Aid to Chief of Staff to the National Commander
Member Bristol Elks Lodge #1860 Scholarship Committee
Member American Legion post 18
Member Vietnam Veterans of America
Committee Member Rhode Island State representative Robert Lancia for Veterans legislative issues
Volunteer at the Rhode Island Veterans Home. Serve on numerous committees to establish and lead programs and events for organizations and groups such as Gold Star family Projects, Scholarships programs, Veteran Healthcare, initiatives and Veterans Legislation. Sponsor/ Coordinate with Bristol Veterans Home, cookouts, luncheons, fishing trips and holiday events. As a DAV and VFW Veterans Service Officer I assist with navigating, and filing claim forms and applications to apply for Veteran Benefits, also coordinate transportation for senior veterans for appointments at Providence Veterans Hospital. Evaluate essays for scholarship programs with local high schools and Scouting organizations. Work closely with State officials and local Representatives assuring Veterans affairs and policy making remain a priority. Work with Providence VA Hospital ( MiniMac) Management Advisory Council working with Hospital Management to be aware of problems and issues along with successes within the Healthcare system assuring Veterans receive the best possible care. Committee member updating and revising Portsmouth Veterans Town Honor Roll.
It is always an honor, privilege and pleasure to volunteer and to serve the Veteran community and their families. I do this with enthusiasm and respect through positive attitude, sharing, caring and commitment to honor our fallen brothers and sisters who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.
Walter H. Coelho