Vietnam is never far from Donald Singleton. It infiltrates his dreams, it haunts his waking hours.
“I go to sleep with Vietnam, I wake up with it,” said Singleton, one of Richmond Hill’s most visible veterans. “I live with Vietnam every day.”
A paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, Singleton was wounded by shrapnel from a grenade on May 18, 1967.
That was 57 years ago. Singleton was on a mission to recover a man killed earlier, his platoon moving single file through the jungle. They were going back over old ground.
“Earlier that day we had a firefight,” he said. “We lost a few people, we got all of them back but one guy, we couldn’t get him back because every time we tried we were fired on. So we waited for night to come and slip in and see if we could find his body.” Instead, they ran into an ambush. Singleton said he was the fifth or sixth man in the column, carrying a machine gun. The soldier in the front of the column walking “point,” got through, but the second soldier, Specialist Dale Wayrynen, didn’t. A grenade was thrown, and Singleton said Wayrynen either threw himself on top of it or tried to throw it out of harm’s way.
Either way, he was killed and Singleton and two other men were wounded.
There was another firefighter, then a call for field artillery support.
“It made the nighttime look like the day,” recalled Singleton, who was eventually flown out of the combat zone on a Huey chopper. Besides the pilots, he was the only living sole on the Huey.
Wayrynen would later be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration the U.S. has to offer.
Singleton got the Purple Heart. Two other Richmond Hill natives, Sgt. Harry Lee Boles and Lowry Cuthbert, didn’t make it back from their tours of duty.
Their names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., but Singleton someday hopes to see a monument somewhere in Richmond Hill bearing the names of Boles and Cutherbert.
It would be a way to come full circle for the men and women who fought in Vietnam and the families who loved them.
“When I came back from Vietnam, a Vietnam veteran didn’t want people to know he was a Vietnam veteran, he was trying to hide it,” Singleton recalled. “You either threw away all your military stuff or you hid it.”
He thinks the welcome veterans have received since Desert Storm in 1991 is a result of the shabby treatment Vietnam veterans received from the American public.
But Singleton doesn’t focus just on his generation and his war. He wants all veterans to be treated with honor.
“Man, a veteran is a veteran, and there should be no difference between a Civil War veteran, or veterans of World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, any war,” he said. “We are all veterans, we all served this country and it doesn’t matter what job a veteran did. If we were cooks, infantry guys, pilots, whatever we did. We still served this country. There are no big vets and little vets. We all served this country.”
A retired railroad engineer and master gardener who raised a family and makes a mean barbecue sauce, Singleton is hard to miss at events celebrating veterans.
He’s at all of them, sometimes standing alone with a 1,000-yard stare as he listens to the speeches.
“Veterans Day is the most important day in my life after my birthday,” Singleton said. “Because if it wasn’t for veterans, we wouldn’t have a president. We’d have a dictator. We wouldn’t be able to vote. Veterans are very important to this country, but I don’t think this country looks at veterans that way. Veterans don’t get the resources they should get.”
That’s why he wears something, he said, to remind others that what he did, what other veterans did, matters.
“I don’t leave home without something on me says I’m a veteran,” Singleton said. “It’s on my cap, my T-shirt, I got bumper stickers on my vehicles. I want people to know that I served this country, and I did a good job serving this country. I think every veteran should do the same thing. We should let America know, let our community know, that we served this country, and if it wasn’t for veterans there wouldn’t be a country.”
He paused. “That’s how I look at it,” he said.