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Conference to honor Vietnam veterans

Memories of the Vietnam War never leave Johnny Ray Alvarez.

"Whatever happened stays with you," he said. "What we went through -- those are things that are always there, the same as any soldier who has been in battle."

One memory in particular is vivid in Alvarez's mind.

The U.S. Army infantryman's squad came under heavy fire trying to assist a downed helicopter crew.

"We were in a hot zone already when we were trying to help a chopper," he said. "We crossed a river. I fell in the river about four times; I didn't know if my machine gun was going to work or not. The chopper got shot down, and when we went to secure them, it was too late. We were surrounded."

Alvarez, 63, said several of his squad members lost their lives, and when he woke up from being knocked unconscious, one severely wounded fellow soldier was on top of him.

"He kept yelling that he wasn't going to make it," Alvarez said. "I don't know how long it took, but we got medevaced (short for medical evacuation) out of there. I never knew if he made it or not."

Vietnam experience conference

Lessons learned from the Vietnam War will be the focus of a two-day conference hosted by the University of Houston-Victoria beginning Thursday.

The Vietnam Experience Conference will include six panel discussions as well as speakers at dinner Thursday night, lunch Friday and the keynote address Friday night at the Welder Center.

The conference came together through discussions among area historians, including retired professor Charles Spurlin, authors and researchers Henry and Linda Wolff and Joe Dahlstrom, university librarian.

UHV History professor Beverly Tomek is the conference chairwoman.

"One thing I would really like to stress about the conference is that teachers from throughout the region can earn continuing education credits through Region III for attending," said Tomek.

"Plus, the last session is an oral history workshop where a team from the Texas Tech Vietnam History Center will bring lesson plans and many other kinds of useful teaching materials to show teachers how to incorporate oral history into their classrooms."

Coming home

Vietnam veteran Marvin Lockhart II didn't let the less-than-warm welcome he received when he returned from the war bother him.

"I basically ignored them," said Lockhart, 69, a weapons specialist who spent time in Vietnam based near Saigon.

"I landed at Travis AFB and took a taxi to LA International. I had some experiences with people kind of looking at you and saying things to you," he said.

"It was sad for a lot of people who went over there and got wounded or lost their friends to come back and have people protesting."

Lockhart acknowledges times have changed.

"People's mindsets back then were a lot different than they are now. Now, it's more geared toward welcoming back the troops than it was then," he said.

Alvarez agreed -- up to a point.

He is concerned about the young veterans returning from the wars in the Middle East.

"They are being recognized and honored more than we were, but there is still a lot of help that they could get that they aren't," he said. "A lot of it has to do with jobs -- minimum wage jobs don't cut it.

"Companies should make it a policy to hire veterans."

Conference agenda

The conference begins with two Thursday morning panel discussions in the UHV Center Multi-Purpose Room, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.

Following the afternoon panel discussions, Larry Chilcoat will deliver an address on War Dogs: Heroism and Sacrifice since World War II, at 6 p.m. in the Multi-Purpose Room.

Friday begins with panel discussions followed by lunch speaker Dennis Riedesel on Gator Navy and the River People of Vietnam.

Following the afternoon panel, the keynote address will be delivered at 7 p.m. at the Welder Center, 214 N. Main St., by Col. (U.S. Army-Ret.) David Taylor.

Taylor served four years on active duty, including combat in Vietnam where he was wounded twice, and 22 years in the Army Reserve in special operations and counterterrorism.

He is U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger and Special Forces qualified.

Taylor is an author, military historian and publisher. His book, "Our War," about his infantry battalion in the Vietnam War was published in 2011.

Alvarez is glad to see the Vietnam conference coming to Victoria.

"It's a great start," he said. "There are a lot of doors that can be opened with a conference like this."

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