Vietnam veteran honors others with party

New Hampshire Sunday News
November 10. 2012 11:54PM
Joe Conlon, a city resident, was with special forces in Vietnam. 
A pint of beer and a shot of whiskey sat untouched at McGarvey's Saloon. Nearby stood a photo of a tall, handsome American surrounded by South Vietnamese soldiers, and a Silver Star rested in a velvet case.

Joseph Conlon, a Vietnam War veteran of the Army's 5th Special Forces Group, threw himself a party Saturday. And for a few hours, there was no better place to be on this Veterans Day weekend.

An Irish balladeer was singing, and American flags and red, white and blue balloons adorned the tables. A stream of friends poured in to congratulate Conlon on receiving the Silver Star, long overdue.

As Conlon's daughter, Chris Shoemaker of Shirley, Mass., hugged her father, he told her, "I wish your mom was here, and your grandma."

"They are, in spirit," she replied.

The citation accompanying Conlon's Silver Star describes his "gallantry in action" at a forward operating base in Danang on Aug. 23 and 24, 1968.

The base came under attack that first night, and one of his comrades was injured in the initial assault. "Staff Sgt. Conlon immediately administered first aid and shielded him with his own body as an explosion and fireball blasted out from a nearby building," it reads.

After stabilizing his badly injured comrade, Conlon prevented the attacking forces from getting inside, then "exposed himself to direct enemy fire as he fought his way outside to rescue more wounded soldiers while delivering highly accurate fire on the enemy." The fight continued into the next morning. The citation notes that Conlon's actions "saved countless lives."

The injured soldier that night was a medic named Jim Scurry, Conlon said in an interview.

"He was defenseless. I wasn't," he said, tears coming to his eyes. "I wasn't going to let them hurt him anymore, so I jumped on his body."

For a very long time, Conlon said, Special Forces veterans didn't receive medals or other recognition; it was the nature of the work they did. "We had to sign security documents," he explained. "I didn't exist."

Back then, he reminded, "there were no Americans in Laos or Cambodia."

His unit was called a "studies and observation group," he said with a wry grin. "We were 'studying and observing' in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam. That's what we did."

In 2000, 25 years after the war ended, Conlon's unit received a Presidential Unit Citation from the Army. The individual medals have followed, slowly.

Conlon took the microphone from singer Marty Quirk to thank his friends for coming to celebrate with him. His hair is white now, and he's gained a few pounds compared with that young soldier in the photo, but the 70-year-old's spine was straight as he donned his dark-blue dress uniform jacket, glittering with medals.

Conlon told his friends the medals soldiers receive are not their own. "We just keep track of them. I have mine framed, I hang them up on my walls, and I remember who was with me that night."

"We lost 17 United States Army Special Forces soldiers that night," he said, struggling to maintain his composure.

He motioned to the untouched glasses of spirits on the counter. "That's why that's there," he said. "That's their drink."

Some of Conlon's closest friends were on hand for the occasion, including Bill Blankenburg of Townsend, Mass., another Special Operations veteran, and Donna and Paul Silver of Raymond, both Vietnam vets.

John O'Keefe, who owns the bar with Bob Scribner, said when Conlon asked him about having the party there, he told him, "I'll throw a bash for you like you've never seen."

Every year, Conlon attends a reunion of the Special Operations Association. That's where he catches up with former members of his unit, including Jim Scurry, the medic who survived that long-ago night assault. At this year's event, held last month in Las Vegas, he was presented his Silver Star.

But it's a long-standing tradition to celebrate afterward at a bar, Conlon noted. And he wanted his celebration to be here in Manchester.

"These are all my friends," he said, looking around fondly. "These are the people that care about me."

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