Sag Harbor native William Stafford, a decorated army veteran, will be the speaker following the Sag Harbor Veterans Day Parade on Tuesday, November 11. He discusses his experiences in Vietnam, his life after the army and what Veterans Day means to him.
When did you enlist?
It was December 1967, I volunteered. I had just gotten out of high school, so I was pretty young. I went through basic training—I went as a combat medic so I went through basic training, I was stationed in Fort Sam, that’s where my training was. Then I went to a military hospital called Fitzsimmons in Denver, Colorado, for burn training. And then I went to Vietnam in 1968 for the first time. I was with Alpha Company 4th of the 31st 196th Light Infantry Brigade. I was there for about eight months and I got shot. I was medevaced out and I was in the hospital for three months. I went back to active duty and I was stationed in Fort Meade, Maryland, and in Arlington Cemetery, and I did a little honor detail where we used to go to funerals around the country. I then got orders to go back to Vietnam.
After you had already been shot?
Yes, I had two Purple Hearts at that time, soon to get three. There wasn’t much discipline in Vietnam, and here was so out of control with people demonstrating—the world was just spinning to me, and it was hard for me to understand. I felt safe with these guys, so I went back Vietnam. I was with the 101st Airborne Division. I was there 65 days and I got hit again on July 4, 1970. This time it was quite a bit worse, the second time around I was probably in the hospital for close to nine months. They decided that I was hurt enough they would give me a medical discharge and retire me out of the military at the age of 22 and a half, 23.
Why did you choose to train as a combat medic when you enlisted?
When I was in high school I worked in Southampton Hospital in the emergency room and also in the operating room. I decided I was going to be in the medical field, when I got out of the service I started nursing school, but I couldn’t deal with sickness or suffering for a long, long time. Which has changed in my life, finally, but it took some time.
What did you do after being discharged from the military?
I came back and I went to Long Island University. I started to be a teacher, but I couldn’t do it—at that point in time I had a low-boiling point and the rules were hard for me to follow. So I did a lot of different things. I was a chef, I’ve done real estate for 40 years. I got married, I have grown kids.
How have you been involved with veterans in the community?
I’ve been a member of the VFW since 1968 and I am a member of the American Legion. I went back to Vietnam for 21 days about seven years ago, which was an interesting process. I reconnected with the people I served with in Vietnam, the ones that are left. Then I went back to college at age 60 to get another degree in counseling and drug and alcohol addictions, which I do now, one day a week. I also have worked in hospice for 15 years. I reconnected with things, and helping other people helps me. I’m involved in the veterans groups because they go out of their way to help people.
What are some of the things that can be done on a national and local level to support our veterans?
When I grew up there were plenty of heroes. I had a lot of heroes growing up: Abraham Lincoln, my father, my grandfather, there were people in the community I looked up to, some of my schoolteachers. I don’t know if that’s so much the case anymore, maybe people don’t talk like they should. There are a lot of heroes walking around here, and most of them are very quiet. So in my speech, what I’m going to say is “hug a veteran.”