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Veterans' Stories

Lawyer dispensed justice in Vietnam as judge at Army court-martials

By JANE KWIATKOWSKI RADLICH | The Buffalo News | Published: July 8, 2019

BUFFALO (Tribune News Service) — Paul Rudnicki clocked more time in the air over the jungles of Vietnam than he can remember, but he never saw one hour of combat.

Rudnicki, a captain in the U.S. Army, served as a military judge traveling throughout South Vietnam to ensure American soldiers received fair trials.

“Those men and women deserve justice and it was our job to deliver it to them,” Rudnicki, now 76, of West Seneca, New York, said with a modest dose of pride about his days as a judge advocate. “Before you had lay people making important legal decisions. We ensured that competent legal authority was presiding over the case.”

Rudnicki graduated from Bishop Timon High School in 1960. Four years later he finished at Siena College, where he was enrolled in the ROTC program. His entry into the Army was deferred while he attended the University of Buffalo School of Law.

Rudnicki was married in 1968, and was assigned that year to Fort Riley Army Base in Kansas, where he was transferred into the Judge Advocate General Corps.

In 1969, Rudnicki was sent to Long Binh Post, the U.S. Army’s largest base in South Vietnam, between Bien Hoa and Saigon. With a population of 60,000 at its height, Long Binh Post had dental clinics, restaurants, a wood shop, post offices, night clubs, swimming pools, a Chase Manhattan Bank branch and the legal center where Rudnicki worked.

“It was an extremely unique concept for its time. Anyone who came in our door was taken care of, no matter what branch of the military they served in,” said Rudnicki.

The Military Justice Act was updated in 1968 with a major revision that completely changed how special courts-martial were conducted. Special courts-martial handle the equivalent of misdemeanor cases. The accused was represented by a real lawyer, said Rudnicki.

Rudnicki presided over 45 cases during his year of service at Long Binh. He said they were often “routine” AWOLs (absent without official leave), where soldiers would disappear for days. Currency manipulation was a frequent offense charged in Vietnam, he recalled.

“You could make a lot of money on the black market exchanging U.S. currency for Vietnamese money,” Rudnicki said.

Accidental shootings were also a common offense in the cases he handled.

From time to time the Viet Cong would shell the Long Binh base with “heavy projectile rockets,” Rudnicki said, but he was rarely in his office at the base’s legal center.

Because of the nature of the Vietnam War and the guerrilla combat that defined jungle skirmishes, Rudnicki spent a bulk of his time in the air flying in helicopters.

“I was awarded with the Air Medal because I spent so much time in helicopters,” he recalled.

Albert Brusetti, 79, also served in Vietnam but not at the same time as Rudnicki. Brusetti said there was no safe place in the war-torn country.

“There was really no place to get away from the war unless you went to another country. Paul didn’t sit in an office in a protected area; he went to the soldiers,” Brusetti said. “He doesn’t talk much about the war. That’s the thing about war vets.”

After his discharge from the Army in March 1972, Rudnicki began a private law practice. He remains in practice today in a converted barn behind his home. Rudnicki has two grown children and two grandchildren.

Brusetti and Rudnicki became acquainted in the mid-'80s, long after the war concluded, through the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 in the City of Tonawanda.

“After returning from the war, many veterans found it difficult adjusting to the lack of support from the community,” said Brusetti. “We weren’t thought of as serving our country in an honorable way. We weren’t looked at like other veterans.

Rudnicki was instrumental in starting “The Welcome Back Ball,” in 1986 at VVA Chapter 77, an effort to restore pride in Vietnam veterans and collect donations to help hungry veterans. During the event's first year, enough money was raised to provide Christmas dinner for several families, recalled Rudnicki.

“Veterans are proud people and they won’t ask for help until their backs are against the wall,” said Rudnicki.

The effort came to be called Valor, and it was run by a committee often headed by Rudnicki. The Valor food pantry is open from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays and Saturdays to serve veterans and their families.

Since 1986, Valor has raised $382,160 to feed veterans.

“Now the pantry is doing really well, and we are even assisting Veterans Hospital,” said Rudnicki. "It started with a dance, and the need is still there.”

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