More than 58,000 U.S. military members died in the Vietnam War, and even ones who survived didn’t emerge unscathed — including a Mount Airy man haunted “by the ghosts that I left in Vietnam.”
Rob Sinton, special speaker for Monday’s annual Memorial Day program in Mount Airy, recalled how he eventually healed from the pain of the war — partly with the help of a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall listing those who died.
But he reminded everyone attending the remembrance service — moved from the city war memorial indoors to the Municipal Building because of rain — that the day exists to honor those “who can’t be with us today except in our memories and hearts.”
One such person mentioned was an officer Sinton knew, whom he referred to Monday as Capt. Landers.
This memory was from a time long before Rob Sinton was a local swimming coach and instructor, when he left his native Bayonne, New Jersey, to enlist in the U.S. Army at the height of the war. He served from 1967-70, including in Vietnam during 1968.
As an Army Specialist E-4 who was a radio operator during the war, Sinton came into contact with many soldiers who would gather at his location each day to board helicopters for transport to their various missions.
The arrival of Capt. Landers’ troops stood out — unlike others who approached more casually, they marched in formation and sang in cadence, in a proud way reflecting love for their unit and leader, recalled Sinton, who also liked Landers.
“The only reason I mention him today is I was talking with him on the radio when he was killed,” Monday’s speaker told an attentive audience spilling out of the city council chambers.
And there were others besides Capt. Landers whose “ghosts” stuck with Sinton even after he returned to the U.S. and became a middle school teacher, he disclosed.
Sinton said he just couldn’t come to grips with the memories of those left behind. This included not being able to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall when it first opened in 1983, knowing the abundance of emotions he would face.
The local veteran later mustered the courage to go to the wall with some buddies from high school who also had served in the war in different units.
He subsequently found the names on the memorial wall of those he served with in Vietnam — including that of Capt. Landers. There also were others known only by ranks or nicknames — “all of the guys I knew in Vietnam and I didn’t know their proper names.”
Doing rubbings or tracings, a practice of applying crayons or markers over a piece of paper to capture images of names, provided Sinton with a sense of closure. “I knew I was healing.”
That process continued when Sinton had the opportunity to tour Vietnam in 1995 and see the country in a more positive light. “That probably helped me heal more than anything else,” he said.
Sinton, who still speaks in a thick New Jersey accent, said lessons learned in his childhood there, in the years after World War II, dictated that he would join the military.
“Nobody sat me down and said, ‘Robbie, you have to serve’ — I knew it was my time to go.” Sinton was led by examples, including an uncle who had spent World War II in a prisoner of war camp, and his father, who insisted on enlisting despite suffering from a debilitating medical condition that otherwise would have disqualified him from service.
Sinton said he initially wanted to be a frogman with the Underwater Demolition Team, which later became the Navy SEALS, although he knew he wasn’t qualified. But he had serious aspirations about becoming a pilot.
That goal came crashing to Earth one day at Fort Dix as Sinton was expecting to be transferred for flight training, but was instead told by a superior: “Back in line, Meathead, with your depth perception, the Army’s not going to let you drive a truck.”
This led to Sinton becoming a radio operator. And though he was in the thick of the fighting in Vietnam, Sinton — who moved to Mount Airy about 14 years ago — said he should not be labeled as any kind of hero. “I do not consider myself in that category.”
Instead, that term should be applied to people such as his dad and uncle, and the thousands of former paperboys and prom dates who fought in Vietnam and didn’t make it back, Sinton said.
“So in closing, I’m not going to wish you a happy Memorial Day,” he added in reference to a statement often misused for a holiday that is anything but a happy time.
Monday’s patriotic program also included a spirited singing of the national anthem and “God Bless America” by Alex Martin, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church; a rifle volley salute to war dead outside the Municipal Building and the playing of “Taps” by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial Honor Guards of Mount Airy Post 2019 and Pilot Mountain Post 9436;
Also, the placing of a wreath honoring the dead; a flag raising by City Honor Guard members; and the reading of a Memorial Day proclamation by Mayor David Rowe.
The mayor cited the “brave Americans” who for centuries have given their lives in faraway lands to uphold the ideals of the nation and maintain peace and security.
“While we should honor them every day,” Rowe said, “we especially should honor them on Memorial Day,” a time of reverence for each person who has died.
“Every loss is a loss…to our nation,” the mayor said.
Before reading the proclamation, Rowe had established the proper solemn tone for Monday’s event during welcoming remarks.
“This is a time of remembering and reflecting,” he told the crowd.
“We remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can gather in places like this.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.