Veteran, business owner donates $1 million to Army Museum in honor of Vietnam vets
By ADELE UPHAUS–CONNER | The Free Lance-Star | Published: November 5, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Bob Stanford, CEO of Fredericksburg-based Zenith Aviation, travels often for work and wherever he goes, he notices the respect and admiration shown to servicemen and servicewomen.
“It’s very heartwarming now to be in an airport and see people applaud when someone in military uniform goes past,” said Stanford, 69.
He recalls receiving a very different welcome from the public when he came back from Vietnam in April 1971.
“When I arrived back and was going through the airport with 100 other [non-commissioned officers] and enlisted people, we were literally spit on,” he said. “People threw stuff at us.”
Stanford said he and his fellow soldiers were told not to travel in their uniforms because that could make them targets for attack by angry protesters. But even in their civilian clothes, their short, military haircuts made them stand out.
“We were a generation that the entire country hated,” he said.
Anger and sadness over this treatment, combined with a desire to see the Vietnam soldier’s story told — “the good, the bad and the ugly” — inspired Stanford to recently pledge $1 million to the National Museum of the United States Army, which will open to the public at Fort Belvoir in June.
The museum announced its opening date in August and Stanford’s donation is half of the $2 million the Army Historical Foundation, which is raising funds for the museum, has collected since that announcement.
The foundation has raised $177 million of the $200 million campaign to build the museum, a news release from the museum states.
“This project owes a special debt of gratitude to Mr. Bob Stanford, who not only contributed to the campaign at one of the highest levels as an individual, but he also served in the U.S. Army as a highly decorated aviator,” foundation President Lt. Gen. Roger Schultz said in the release.
Stanford enlisted in the Army in 1968 at age 18.
“I volunteered, out of a sense of duty,” he said. “I didn’t like what was going on. I had been in college for a month and didn’t like all the protests.”
He received nine months of training as a helicopter pilot and by 19, he was a warrant officer in Vietnam, serving with the 134th Assault Helicopter Company.
“We were cannon-fodder,” Stanford said.
He spent a year in Vietnam and a few years stateside and then, in April of 1971, the Army “threw [him] out.”
“Me and 27,000 other helicopter pilots,” he said.
Even though his father was a veteran, having served with the Marines in World War II, Stanford said his family was embarrassed by his service.
He put the medals he’d earned in the attic of his parents’ house.
“Everybody wants to forget about Vietnam,” he said. “We all just tried to put it behind us.”
It was 15 years before he could find a job as a helicopter pilot, because the Army had trained and released tens of thousands of others and there were few jobs.
In the meantime, Stanford sold tires. Then he got a job flying for Petroleum Helicopters. After that, his job as a salesman for Learjet brought him to the Fredericksburg area.
In 2002, Stanford and his daughter Angela founded Zenith Aviation, which supplies replacement parts for regional and commercial aircraft.
The company now does $16 million in gross sales to regional airlines, corporations and charter-service firms all over the world.
About five years ago, Stanford heard about the Army Historical Foundation raising funds to build a national museum dedicated to telling the story of the U.S. Army from its origins to the present.
He bought a brick from the Army Historical Foundation, attended the museum groundbreaking several years ago and became a donor, first at the $500 level, then the $25,000 level and then the $250,000 level after a friend challenged him.
In September, Stanford and a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Jack Apperson, got a tour of the museum as it neared completion. Stanford was impressed.
“A lot of thought and effort has gone into this museum,” he said.
There is a gallery that tells the story of Vietnam and Stanford said it is done “respectfully.” But he was dismayed when he noted that it was one of the few galleries in the museum that had not received a large gift of support.
“I just thought, ‘Here we go again,’ ” Stanford said. “Is this still a controversy? Are we still upset about this? It’s like everybody is still trying to hide from something that is still killing us.”
“I can get pretty teary-eyed,” he said.
Stanford said he has pictures of himself from Vietnam in which he is “covered” in Agent Orange. He has friends who have died or are dying of cancer. He has been diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer and said his wife suffered five miscarriages—all of which he attributes to his exposure to the herbicide.
In addition to diseases associated with Agent Orange exposure, Vietnam veterans are also at high risk for suicide. According to a 2016 report from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, 65 percent of veterans who died from suicide in 2014 were 50 or older.
Stanford wanted to honor the sacrifices of his generation. After the tour, he talked to his wife and decided to pledge $1 million to the museum and the Vietnam-era gallery in particular.
Despite his experience, Stanford remains proud of having served.
“You know you did the right thing — and if you’re lucky enough, you can go on to live a better life,” he said.