Navy Veteran’s service etches memories of survival, compassion from Vietnam War

Navy Veteran’s service etches memories of survival, compassion from Vietnam War

By Lauren Brant

He stood on the flight deck off the coast of Vietnam and gazed at a horizon lit up with bombs exploding. His brother Gloyd, who was serving in the Marines, was inland as those bombs were going off over his head. That was the scariest memory Navy Culinary Specialist Richard McKay experienced during his service in the Vietnam War.

In March of 1969, McKay received draft papers from the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War. Prior to receiving the letter, McKay spoke with a Navy recruiter, with a strong interest in joining. To ensure the Army did not enlist McKay, the Navy provided him with the necessary paperwork, which took him two weeks to complete. Then, he gave it to his recruiter and headed to Milwaukee, Wisc., to complete a physical and aptitude test. The Navy swore in McKay shortly after, but he returned home to spend the Easter holiday with his family.

With a trip at sea lasting six months on average, McKay said it was hard to handle coming home, because the children and wife are different every time. McKay described his emotions while serving in the Navy as “a rollercoaster ride, because shortly before I went to sea with the Coral Sea, I was married and had one child at home.”

Before McKay was stationed anywhere, he completed boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill., where he learned sea time and phone messaging. After entering the service in April of 1969, as a seaman recruit, his first duty station took him to Kodiak, Alaska. He received six months of training for structural fire and six and half months of training for crash and salvage should a plane crash occur. “I never had to deal with rescuing anybody out of any fire, nor did I have to deal with any structural fires,” said McKay.

That was the first time he was away from home. From there, McKay was assigned to the USS Coral Sea along with a company of 5,000 men. “We used to call it USS Coral Sea CVA43 and there you started my misery,” McKay said with a laugh.

As the ship headed out to sea, McKay left behind his family shortly after his 21st birthday. 

While at sea, the men filled their downtime with friendly activities like smokers and cookouts. For a smoker, the crew would set up a boxing ring on the flight deck for some friendly competition. McKay’s opponent stood at 6 ft. 3 in. compared to McKay at 5 ft. 9 in. His fighting strategy brought laughter to the crowd as McKay ducked his head and he swung up at his opponent’s face. “I won the match,” said McKay. “I think it was out of humor more than actually winning the fight.”

At the end of each day, the crew would retire to their quarters, which were furnished with bunk beds stacked three high. “Mine was the top bunk,” said McKay. “I had to fight my bunk light, which was within inches of my head, and fuel lines and other pipes running through in various areas of the overhead.”

While traveling to Vietnam, the crew would conduct practice drills to man their general quarters stations. McKay’s station was on the phone where he would relay information from the crew to D.C. central. Within the message, McKay would relay the deck level, the compartment and what the room was used for like storage or living. “It was a very important responsibility to relay messages properly,” said McKay.

Throughout his Navy time, he served several commands, stateside and abroad. One of McKay’s favorite commands was in Scotland since his nationality is Scotch-Irish. During his year-and-a-half there, he saw a variety of weather. “It’s the only place I know where the sun is shining and you can get hail, rain, sleet, and snow at the same time,” he said.

During his time in the navy, McKay saw the world. “I’ve been as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. I’ve been as far south as the Strait of Magellan. I’ve been completely around the South American continent by way of going through the Panama Canal. I’ve been as far east as Hong Kong, China. I’ve been as far west as Gocek, Turkey.”

While serving on a Spruance Class Destroyer, USS Thorn DD988, the crew stopped in Lome Togo, Africa, for some rest and relaxation, McKay recalled the effect a young boy still has on him to this day. After the crew helped the African navy train, fix wells, and build a church, they went to get some refreshments. There was a teenage boy, who was about 5 ft. 7 in., dragging himself across the ground and wood decking with a smile on his face. He had no use of his legs. McKay said that memory is etched in his mind and that “a highlight of my whole tour in the service was seeing somebody that disabled with a smile on his face and doing what he had to do to survive.”

After 21 years, 3 months and 10 days of service – 16 years of that at sea – McKay retired from the Navy as a chief petty officer. Still, he maintains his oath he took when he joined the service to protect this country. After Sept. 11, 2001, he called his recruiter and said he would have packed his sea bags that day. “The people that are going to defend this country within are those who are former veterans who can still stand for what they believe in,” said McKay.

With Veteran’s Day coming up on November 11, it is important to recognize the sacrifices of veterans who served to protect the freedoms and privileges people have in America. “It’s important for us to understand that without these veterans, we wouldn’t have the freedom to protest what we do protest,” said McKay.

He also mentioned how these veterans continue to fight for their medical and health needs they incurred during the service.

While every veteran has a unique story about their time in the service, all of them do it for the same reason – to protect their family and their country. Veteran’s Day is more than remembering battles. It is a day to honor and thank the brave men and women who sacrificed time with their families to ensure the prosperity of America.

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