By: Beth D’Amato – Feb. 2017
The Valley Patriot is celebrating its 13th year in publication this month! As part of that tribute, we are spotlighting one of our very own for this month’s Hero, Vietnam Veteran: Rich Russell.
Richard Lawrence Russell was born on August 17th 1946 in Lynn, MA. Rich went up through the Lynn school system and after graduation, attended Prep school for a year. He studied Civil Engineering at Northeastern University and worked as a surveyor for a couple of local companies.
Rich was eligible for the Vietnam draft when he graduated high school but received a “student deferment.” However, in May of 1968 Rich enlisted in the service. He arrived at Fort Dix in New Jersey for nine weeks of basic training. According to Rich, “If you enlisted, you could request certain training or job descriptions. But if you got drafted, you had no say. You did what they told you and went where they sent you.” Enlistments were for three years of active duty and three years of reserves. Once basic training was completed, Rich was sent for Advanced Individual Training at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. They wanted to utilize Rich’s experience and trained him as a construction surveyor.
Rich became a Spec 4 and along with his fellow E4s arrived at the Oakland Army Terminal where they were flown by commercial charter to Hawaii. From there they went to Guam and eventually on to Saigon. They finally arrived in Vietnam in December of 1968.
Rich was sent to an Engineering Unit in Vietnam. Their job was to provide combat support to the infantry units. They were in charge of the Search and Destroy missions. The villagers were given notice to evacuate and the Engineering Squads would move in to clear the area. This was done by burning everything down (villages, huts, etc) clearing booby traps, doing mine sweeps and destroying water wells. This was done by throwing grenades into the wells to cause them to cave in on themselves. Rich stated, “I threw two grenades into a well but they didn’t explode.” Along with another soldier, he grabbed a front end loader to bulldoze the well. But on the way, the front end loader accidently sliced open a body that was buried just below the ground’s surface. The smell was putrid. Rich said he equates it with “the smell of burnt marijuana.”
Per Rich, “there was lots of pot smoke wafting through the air at night into the bunkers.”
As stated earlier, Rich’s unit provided combat support to the infantry as required but he never directly or deliberately had to shoot to kill. Rich told the story of how the children in the village would collect the discarded batteries the soldiers left behind. “They would take the fuses out of the artillery shells and the older teenagers would rig everything up. Under nightfall, they would lay the now live shells with trip wires.” At daybreak, Rich and his unit were on watch and heard a loud explosion. They ran to the clearing to see the smoky remains of a jeep that had carried two MPs (one American and one Vietnamese). The jeep had tripped the wire. All that was left were chunks of human debris and a couple of jeep parts.
The soldiers always had to be on the lookout for Charlie aka the Viet Cong. They would sneak through fields, mud puddles and sandpits to perpetrate surprise attacks on Americans. These attacks would take place at night. When soldiers were on perimeter watch, Charlie would throw a satchel with a detonation charge blowing up the whole area. Rich’s unit had to salvage timber from the bunkers that were mostly destroyed by the explosions. While salvaging, they would discover bits of body parts and charred remains of feet still in their boots. According to Rich, there were times the Viet Cong would slip up. “They would get caught in our barbwire fencing. Infantry soldiers would kill the ones still alive and leave the dead bodies on the wire as a warning to any approaching enemy.”
Rich completed his one year tour of duty in December of 1969. He left with the rank of E5. He flew back to the states but did an additional sixteen months at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Upon returning to Massachusetts, Rich stayed with his brother Charlie in a rented house in Nahant. He moved around over the years, renting apartments and continued to work for surveyor companies. In 1981, Rich married a lovely woman named Pat. They lived in Salem, MA but then Rich was laid off in 1989. There was a job available in Delaware, so Rich and Pat moved down there and stayed for ten years. They returned to Massachusetts and in 2001, bought a single family home in Lawrence.
Both Rich and Pat loved dogs and used to show them in competitions. They were married for thirty years when unfortunately in 2011, Pat passed away. According to Rich, Pat “posthumously” bought him a 35mm digital, single lens camera. Rich volunteers his time to The Valley Patriot. He does research, breaks stories and of course photographs all events. Rich has a Ham radio license. He is also involved in the local politics within the City of Lawrence where he still resides.
Unfortunately, Rich lost any pictures he had of himself from Vietnam in an apartment fire years ago. He still has his medals: National Defense service Medal, Vietnam service Medal and Vietnam Campaign medal with Device 60 – which indicates the decade Rich served in Vietnam. Vietnam is like another lifetime but according to Rich, if civilians want to see or experience some of the tragedies of the war – the movie most close to the reality of Vietnam is Apocalypse Now.
Rich doesn’t actively participate in Vietnam veteran organizations. He does however visit J.t Torres’s place at New England Veterans Liberty House on Canal Street in Lawrence. No doubt residents of Lawrence, North Andover and surrounding communities see Rich around the area, pointing his camera at something or someone for a Valley Patriot story. Next time you see Rich…say hello!
Thank you Rich Russell for your service to our country! And thank you for all you do for The Valley Patriot.