When Francis X. Flaherty and some of his buddies returned from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, they arrived in San Francisco.
“It was probably the worst place in the country,” Flaherty said of the anti-war sentiment of the time. People yelled epithets like “baby killer” and consciously avoided them. One of the first things Flaherty and his group did was to buy civilian clothes, but they were forced to change. The airlines wouldn’t honor their military tickets unless they were in uniform.
“We were the face of the turmoil the country was in,” said Flaherty, who went on to become a Warwick City Council member, then mayor and some years later a Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice.
Flaherty was 21 years old, a second lieutenant and an Army platoon leader when he arrived in Vietnam.
“I was one of the oldest,” Flaherty said of his platoon, which he said had “contact” – meaning exchanging fire with the enemy – at least 100 times during the year he served. In one stretch the platoon had “contact’ for 12 consecutive days, setting what he believes was a record at that time. More than once, helicopters he was a passenger in were shot down. And boats he was traveling in were sunk.
Flaherty said it was not uncommon to come face-to-face with the enemy in the dense jungle growth. Firefights didn’t last long, he said, “30 seconds … sometimes a minute.”
“I was lucky,” he says reciting more than a half-dozen names of Rhode Island friends who died in battle. He says he knew “scores more” from his own platoon and from training, where soldiers he had befriended ultimately didn’t make it home.
Flaherty said he was not only lucky to escape serious bodily injury, but also the psychological scars so many veterans returned with. Flaherty wants to remember these men. He fears their sacrifices will fade and the losses their families suffered diminished. That is why he so readily agreed to be the keynote speaker this Saturday at a display of a scaled down version of the Vietnam Wall at India Point Park in Providence. The wall arrived in the state yesterday, where the Patriot Guard Freedom Riders and a Rhode Island State Police motor brigade met it. Volunteers are assembling the wall, from the Rhode Island Air National Guard and the 143 Civil Engineer Squadron. It will be open to the public starting today and through Sunday.
The wall, the American Veteran Traveling Tribute, is an 80-percent replica of the National Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. It bears the names of 209 Rhode Islanders who died in the war.
Operation Stand Down Rhode Island (OSDRI) sponsors the wall’s visit. There is no charge for visiting the wall or attending ceremonies during the visit.
OSDRI will host an official opening ceremony for the wall on June 5 at 5:30 p.m. featuring a keynote address by decorated Vietnam veteran and helicopter pilot Tom Suprock. Suprock was shot down multiple times in Vietnam, has been awarded 24 medals of valor, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart, the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry, the Air Medal and the Rhode Island Cross. He represented Rhode Island's Vietnam veterans at the groundbreaking of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Flaherty will be speaking at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
The following day, in closing ceremonies starting at 1:45, another Vietnam veteran, former Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Frank Williams, will be the keynote speaker.
"This will be a true tribute to all our men and women in uniform and we are honored to bring this moving reminder of the true price of freedom to Rhode Island. The tribute will honor the 209 Rhode Islanders killed during the Vietnam War as well as recognize the service of all Rhode Islanders who have fought to defend our freedom," Erik Wallin, executive director of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, said in a statement.
“Kudos to Operation Stand Down,” Flaherty said of bringing the wall to the state.
Then referring to the words, “stand down,” Flaherty added, “They were two of my favorite words. It meant we were not going out on patrol that night.”
Flaherty, who returned with a dozen medals, said he will talk about the age of those who served and the talent that was lost and how those serving knew the war “was tearing apart the fabric of the community back home.”
“You fought for the man on your right and the one on your left,” he said.