For First Time, Montgomery County Will Honor Its Vietnam War Veterans

Veterans who live in the county include former pilot shot down in immediate aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

Tom Murphy, now a Rockville attorney, during his time serving in Vietnam. Murphy will speak Saturday at an event to honor Vietnam veterans who live in Montgomery County
It’s estimated that between 130 and 140 Montgomery County residents were killed in the Vietnam War and that more than 13,000 Vietnam War veterans live in the county now.
On Saturday, for the first time since U.S. involvement in the war ended in 1975, county leaders and some of those veterans will gather to honor those who fought in the war in an event that was both welcomed and viewed suspiciously by some.

“We wanted these people to know that we appreciate them,” said Neil Greenberger, a spokesperson for the Montgomery County Council and history buff who together with employees of county public access TV stations helped organize the event over the last year.

“Some of the vets we contacted said, ‘No one’s ever thanked us before, why are you bothering now?’ Some people were grateful,” Greenberger said. “It’s been a really long time.”

Tom Murphy, a Vietnam veteran who leads his own Rockville law firm and has served as the president of the Maryland and Montgomery County Bar Associations, said he agreed to speak at the event, “Honor and Gratitude: Montgomery County Salutes Vietnam Veterans,” because organizers promised it will be a celebration of those who served, as opposed to a memorial.

Murphy, who in June 1969 was shot in the chest in a firefight near the Cambodian border, said the opposition to the war and the lack of recognition of war veterans that followed definitely took a toll.
“People didn’t want to hang out with you because you were a veteran. You were anonymous. It was just something you did and you put it aside and nobody talked about it,” Murphy said. “Just nobody talked about it for decades.”

Murphy lived in Kensington as a teenager and graduated from Good Counsel High School in 1968. In June 1969, his unit was patrolling in an area known as Parrot’s Peak. Two North Vietnam regiments attacked Murphy’s much smaller American unit.

A North Vietnamese soldier jumped out from behind a tree with no helmet and an AK-47, shooting Murphy in the chest as Murphy shot him. Murphy lived and the North Vietnamese soldier died.

“The only reason I’m talking to you today is his round hit my fourth rib and shattered,” said Murphy, who was flown out of Vietnam and eventually taken to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, then in Washington, D.C.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that my experience in Vietnam doesn’t affect me in some way,” Murphy said. “I say to my friends, ‘I’m the luckiest guy you’ll ever meet.’ But I think on Saturday, my half-humorous statement will be easily eclipsed by some of the other guys there.”

Five former prisoners of war, all who live in Montgomery County, are expected to appear together at the event, set for 10:30 a.m. at the Universities at Shady Grove.

Among them will be Everett Alvarez Jr., a Navy pilot shot down in the immediate aftermath of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident, who spent more than eight years in captivity, making him the second-longest held American prisoner of war in history.

Alvarez now lives in Potomac and is known for surviving imprisonment at the “Hanoi Hilton,” a prison where North Vietnamese forces kept and tortured captured American servicemen.

Bob Schieffer, the veteran TV reporter and anchor who recently retired as host of CBS’ Face the Nation, will host the event, which will also include appearances by Sen. Ben Cardin, Rep. John Delaney, Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith, a Navy veteran who served at the National Security Agency during the war.

County Executive Ike Leggett, himself a Vietnam veteran, will help lead the ceremony, which will be recorded and broadcast on many of the public cable television stations that make up the county’s umbrella group of public access media outlets.

Those outlets have also been interviewing county Vietnam veterans for a documentary that will be shown after the event.

“We thought it was absolutely ridiculous that no one had ever done anything like this for Vietnam vets in the county,” Greenberger said. “This is for those who are living to say, ‘Thank you,’ which is something that nobody ever did, at least not in Montgomery County.”