December 1, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Vietnam Veteran Spotlight

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Profile of Gary Napieracz & Jim Evener

Most Cornell students find themselves stressed about prelims, projects, readings and problem-sets. We trek across campus to get to our favorite study spot or our next class. At 19, Gary Napieracz and Jim Evener, two former Cornell custodians, found themselves trekking through the Vietnamese jungle wondering if they  would see the sun rise again. Gary and Jim met with us for a few hours over coffee to share their story. Now we will try to share it with you. 

Jim and Gary grew up in the New York Finger Lakes region. Jim, a self described “country farm boy,” grew up on his parents’ farm in the small town of Marathon, NY. He spent his days milking his family’s sixteen cows and growing produce.After High School, his father helped him start his own farm, where he eventually found himself with 540 acres and 160 heads of cattle.

Gary is a city boy,but don’t get the wrong idea. He only describes himself that way because he had running water growing up. Gary is from Auburn, NY, which has a population of only 26,000 people.

On Dec. 1st 1969, the draft for the Vietnam War began. Among the 2.2 million Americans drafted for Vietnam were Gary and Jim. They both chose to enlist. Enlisting gave them control over their future and an opportunity to lead. 

Gary enlisted in the Army, where he was designated to be an auto repair specialist, though as he quickly pointed out, by the time he made it to Vietnam it meant almost nothing. Jim chose to enlist in the Air Force where he was designated to be an air-freight specialist. 

After graduating basic and going to their respective job specialty schools, Jim and Gary were sent to Vietnam. Gary quickly learned how to live without running water, or a working toilet. Gary arrived in Vietnam in 1969 during the scariest time he could imagine. He remembers  rockets landing and bullets flying as he was rushed into a bunker. After asking his E-9 Sergeant where he was going, his Sergeant pointed to the outside of the bunker and said “Out there.” Terrified, Gary tried to figure out a way to be reassigned to a safer job. His Sergeant tasked Gary with memorizing the entire Uniform Code of Military Justice. After reciting one of the codes his Sergeant told him “You are now an E-5 Sergeant, and you will be leading convoys.” Gary’s plan had failed miserably. From then on out, he led dangerous convoys through Vietnam and into Cambodia alongside his best friend, an M-60 machine gun. 

Jim was stationed in Da Nang with the 15th Aerial Port Squadron. Jim had the luxury of staying in the barracks until he was stationed with a Marine Division. Like Gary, Jim found himself in the dangerous role of leading convoys from Da Nang Air Force Base down to Cam Ranh Bay.

Gary and Jim were constantly risking their lives as they watched many of their friends pass away. However, not everything about their experience in Vietnam was negative. When asked about any positive memories of Vietnam, both immediately spoke of the South Vietnamese people’s kindness. Jim and Gary also recalled how sometimes on rest and relaxation, they would go up North to a resort. There, Australians, Americans, Filipinos, Belgians, North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese alike would party together. For one day they could be friends, and the next they would be fighting against one another in the jungle. 

On one fateful day Jim was part of a small convoy of only four vehicles. All of a sudden, the convoy was attacked from all sides. Only two individuals made it back on that trip. Jim was not one of them. He was shot in the back,unable to move his legs. He crawled for three days until he was found laying in some bushes by a Vietnamese woman. She got help from American Military police, who got Jim to safety. This woman saved Jim’s life. Back home, his family knew nothing except that he was missing in action.

Jim recalls waking up in a Japanese hospital bed. The doctors informed him that they believed he would never walk again. He stubbornly told the doctors he intended to walk out of the hospital one day. Jim finds great satisfaction in the fact that eight months later, that’s exactly what he did.

Jim was sent home to see his family for Christmas, though they were never informed that he was found. We can only imagine the surprise they felt seeing Jim return unannounced.  Yet, able to walk once more, Jim was sent back to Vietnam where he served for another year.

Coming home from Vietnam, Jim and Gary faced backlash. When they landed in New York City, they were spat on and harassed. They were advised to take their uniforms off so they could not be singled out and attacked. In their small towns, Jim and Gary were generally well received but because of the controversy surrounding the war, their families never talked about Vietnam.

Gary and Jim never went back to Vietnam, though the lasting physical and mental effects of the war have stayed with them. Gary, whose nerves were completely “blown out” during the war, visits the doctor every three months to get forty-one shots of botox. Jim also has experienced lasting health problems due to his injuries.

However, they said every Vietnam veteran is still fighting a war at home. A war with their minds. Lingering memories of atrocities they witnessed have led to lifelong post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result of the death he witnessed in Vietnam, Gary describes himself as “desensitized.” He doesn’t feel the same intense emotion he thinks he should at the passing of loved ones and friends. 

When they returned home, they chose to serve the community as Cornell custodians. They describe it as the best time of their lives. They cherished the relationships they were able to develop with students and faculty alike.  They were known for learning the names of students and faculty and getting to know them personally. Both were invited to participate in a documentary highlighting the wisdom of custodians at various universities around the country called The Philosopher Kings. This experience allowed them to travel the world, attending various showings.  Jim felt like a celebrity.

Despite their own battles, they both pour into other veterans around them, helping them get the care they need, being a set of listening ears. Both Gary and Jim make regular phone calls to local veterans to make sure they know they always have a friend. 

They have continued this work through the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), where they host regular meetings to provide  a familiar place for those they served alongside. The local chapter of the VVA has been closely involved with Cornell ROTC, organizing remembrance watchfires, parades and other honorary ceremonies. For over forty years now, the VVA has accepted anyone who served during the Vietnam era in any capacity with open arms. 

The VVA also works at the congressional level. They have pressed Congress to help get veterans the help they deserve by increasing the accessibility and quality of care an individual receives at VA hospitals around the country. During Vietnam, the same Agent Orange canisters that Gary cooked steaks over were later discovered to be harmful. This has had lasting health effects on veterans, who are still trying to get proper care to this day. 

Moving forward, we are still going to stress about prelims, projects, readings and problem-sets. And that’s okay. However, there are silent individuals that have gone through so much more. We spend so much time trying to improve ourselves academically, sometimes we fail to see those around us with so much to share. So we challenge you: talk to a veteran. Find the elderly gentleman with the distinctive ball cap,  ask questions and listen to what they have to say. It won’t boost your GPA or land you an internship, but it may provide a valuable experience like it did for us.

Anna Stevens ’23 is a junior in the College of Engineering. Koby Batterna ’23 is a junior in the College of Engineering. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.