VIETNAM VET FINDS COMMUNITY IN VFW
In 1965, Tom Ford’s father drove him to the Army induction station in Los Angeles, handed him a $5 bill, said, “Take care of yourself,” and sent him on his way.
Ford had completed a few years of college before he was drafted, which “entitled me to opportunities to advance rather rapidly,” Ford said.
His first deployment to Vietnam came in March 1967.
“Nothing really, really bad happened to us that year — until the Tet Offensive,” Ford said. “That was a whopper.”
In early 1968, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a series of attacks on South Vietnam. Though the communists suffered far greater losses than the South Vietnamese and U.S. militaries, the Tet Offensive was a turning point in weakening Americans’ support for the war.
“We came home from that tour thinking we’d just won the war. That was it. They were going to quit — they had to. We’d just wiped them out,” Ford said.
But the war was far from over at that point. Ford’s cousin, an infantryman in his first year, had been killed during Ford’s first tour, which pushed Ford to stay committed to the war effort.
“I felt like I had to do more, so I volunteered for flight school, to get into helicopters,” Ford said, adding, “It was evident that if you wanted to be where the action was, you wanted to be flying helicopters. And if you were flying helicopters and you wanted action, you want to be in the air cavalry.”
Because he had just returned from a tour in Vietnam, the Army instead sent him to Europe. He spent 18 months flying VIPs on helicopters and driving around Germany in a Corvette, a single guy in his mid-20s.
“It was wonderful. Best beer you ever tasted in your life,” Ford said.
In 1970, Ford was sent back to Vietnam to command an aerial rifle platoon. By then, American deaths totaled more than 49,000.
“I go back to Vietnam, and the whole thing is different. We’re winding down and drawing out rather than advancing,” Ford said.
He was sent to the demilitarized zone, flying in an air cavalry troop.
“As the units evacuated south, the American forces became fewer and fewer. And your responsibilities became much more enormous,” Ford said.
“The camaraderie you develop in the military is beyond anything you could ever imagine in this world because you’re dealing with your life and the people that are going to protect your back.”
On Christmas Day, 1970, Ford was ordered to take a helicopter to assist in retrieving American soldiers who had been attacked in violation of a truce.
“There was all kinds of shooting going on,” Ford said. “You’re talking to your co-pilot, you’re talking to the ground commander on FM radio, talking to the medevac pilot, and you’ve got a Victor radio going that runs your navigation system. And in the background … Bing Crosby’s singing, ‘I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.’ … It was one of those surreal, never-to-forget moments.”
Ford left Vietnam in October 1971.
“When I came home, I was very frustrated with the whole thing. I resigned and got out and went back to school,” Ford said.
Ford later left California for Montana, where he spent 12 years running a restaurant and bar, then married and spent a year in the Caribbean before moving to Deer Island. Eventually, Ford moved to Scappoose.
In Scappoose, Ford was working on a project in his backyard when a stranger introduced himself as Frank Weber and suggested he join the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Still working at the time, Ford said he was too busy. But after retiring, he joined the VFW Post 4362.
The post commander at the time moved out of the area shortly after Ford joined, and Ford was elected commander.
“I became the commander right off the bat. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it was really fulfilling,” Ford said.
Now 77, Ford led the post for five years before stepping back from leadership, but he is still involved with the post.
The VFW is “a tremendous organization,” but “the thing that’s frightening about it is the young people who are veterans these days are not joining. … Every opportunity I get, I try to get these young veterans to join.”