By Yolanda F. Williams and Peter Brown
Every November, Veteran’s Day is a time to honor American veterans and provides an opportunity to thank them for their service and sacrifice. This year also marks the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The Department of State’s Veterans@State, an employee affinity group, took the initiative to highlight the experiences of two Department employees, Vietnam veterans U.S. Marine Corps Col. Harry “Murph” McCloy and U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Steven P. Rudock.
McCloy wondered what he had gotten himself into when he enlisted in the Marine Corps more than 60 years ago. It was August 1957, and McCloy had just graduated from high school in Elizabethtown, Ky. He needed time to figure out what to do with his life but had figured out that he wanted the Marines to “make him into a man.” Now at 80 years old, he recalls boot camp as “tough and demanding, both physically and mentally,” but knew that if he just listened and did exactly as he was told, he could “gut it out” and survive, one day at a time.
McCloy’s survival strategy served him well through boot camp, and he continued to “gut it out,” one day at a time in Vietnam. In nearly three years of service in Vietnam, McCloy never took leave except for a week off to meet his new wife in Hawaii in 1970. Three years turned into three decades as McCloy eventually became a commissioned officer and rose to the rank of colonel before retiring and signing up for service again, this time with the Department of State.
In Vietnam McCloy served mostly in the central and northern provinces, with an operation or two in the mangrove swamps outside Saigon. As an infantry platoon leader, company executive officer, and advisor to Vietnamese ranger and marine battalions, he lived and fought side-by-side with Vietnamese allies.
“The shared danger created a stress which tended to bond us more than fray our nerves,” said McCloy.
Playing cribbage, sharing a cold beer, a nouc chanh (Vietnamese limeade), or a hot café sua (black Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk) helped build relationships with his fellow Marines and Vietnamese partners.
Some memories of that time are etched in his mind. McCloy recalls his group being surrounded and having to commandeer boats to cross a river to avoid being overrun and taken prisoner—or worse.
“Another time I was wounded up close to the border with North Vietnam during a night mortar attack,” he said. “While the soldiers were trying to load my stretcher on the field ambulance, they dropped me in the process. Now that was memorable!”
From Vietnam, McCloy’s service took him around the United States and the world and facilitated his earning a master’s degree from Catholic University through the GI bill. His 36-year career is distinguished by awards for meritorious service and heroism in combat. McCloy retired in 1993.
Upon leaving the Marine Corps, McCloy began working for the U.N. Special Representative of the Secretary General in Somalia. He eventually joined the Department, retiring again in 2007, but continued to serve the Department part-time working in the humanitarian demining and conventional weapons destruction field.
“My service life prepared me well for my second career—which is still ongoing,” said McCloy. “The skills I learned in the Marines enable me to thrive and get things done in a cross-cultural environment. I’d gladly do it all again.”
With honor over, honor over all
From the beginning, Steven Rudock’s experience was different. Rudock learned he was drafted into the Marine Corps while getting his draft physical.
“I didn’t know the Marines drafted people, but I knew I did not want to be a Marine,” Rudock said.
His choices were limited: he either opted for a different service branch on the spot or he would become a Marine. Rudock happened to go to the physical with a friend who was swearing into the U.S. Navy and picking up plane tickets afterward. The recruiter allowed Rudock to swear in with his friend under the Navy’s “Buddy System Program.” So he followed suit, swore in, and was placed on a plane to boot camp in San Diego the same night.
The world was changing rapidly for Rudock, and he didn’t feel good about it.
“Not good at all. Vietnam was not a popular conflict. It was political,” said Rudock. “Family and friends were against us. Living in Santa Cruz was very similar to Berkley, many anti-Vietnam demonstrations.”
Training mishaps added to the atmosphere, making training even harder.
“I was in a 13-week boot camp, and it was intense,” he explained.
Firefighting training was a priority for the Navy after the 1967 USS Forrestal fire, so every sailor was trained to be a full-fledged firefighter. In week seven, faulty equipment used during firefighting training landed Rudock in Balboa Naval Hospital for 45 days from smoke inhalation.
“The first two weeks in the hospital, I was told I wasn’t going to make it,” said Rudock. “The Navy notified my parents that they may want to travel to San Diego.”
But Rudock persevered. After recovering from his injuries, he survived bootcamp, Vietnam, and 39 years in the Navy (8 active duty and 31 reserve). His career took him all over the world. Rudock earned the National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Award, Navy Unit Commendation, Vietnam Service Medal, and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
Rudock recalled most of his time during Vietnam as trying and fraught.
“It was horrible,” he said. “We represented a war that was disliked by almost all Americans. But even though we were non-volunteers, we were extremely patriotic and proud to serve our country.”
Looking back, Rudock laments the “extremely bad morale amongst the sailors and soldiers. There was Viet Cong propaganda radio, news of the POW camps, Jane Fonda and her visit to Hanoi. It was not fun.”
The discord over the Vietnam War made serving far from home that much harder, exacerbating events in the field and at sea. Memories of that time are heavy with thoughts of those who died. One particularly difficult memory came from operations with an Australian light aircraft carrier, The Melbourne, which resulted in disaster. The Melbourne collided with the USS Evans (DD-754) in the summer of 1969 and cut the destroyer in two. The survivors of the Evans were transferred to other ships.
“Memories of those who did not survive dominated our thoughts and prayers during that time period,” said Rudock.
Despite the difficulty of the time and troubled memories, Rudock is quick to note the most memorable thing of his time in Vietnam is also the most positive thing—meeting his wife in January 1973. They were married on Nov. 6, 1974, and Rudock credits his wife for helping him get through everything.
Rudock retired from active duty in January 1979 but continued his service in the Naval Reserves until 2010. After 1979, he studied on the GI bill, moved to northern California, and eventually made his way back home to San Diego in 1985. His career took him through a series of progressive positions at the Department of Defense as a metrology supervisor, instrument and control/radiation technician, and eventually a senior nuclear oversight/quality assurance engineer. He joined the Department of State in 2011.
Rudock’s experience underscores how important life is to him and drives him to focus on helping others. Vietnam made him think, “How do I want to be remembered?” and “What is my contribution?” In 1997, he resurrected a defunct teenage baseball league in San Diego, spending thousands of dollars to help the league become the largest in San Diego County. Rudock’s outreach focused on underprivileged youth who could not afford to participate in sports and provided scholarships for them. His commitment to help children grow and mature, and his desire to instill the value of sportsmanship is evident in refereeing more than 200 games a year for boys and girls of all ages. Rudock also sponsored baseball teams from Australia, in partnership with San Diego State University and the San Diego Padres, and has furthered the popularity of “beeper ball,” a form of baseball for people with visual impairments.
McCloy and Rudock are just two of the estimated 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam. Their experiences are as unique as each of the millions of Americans who have served in all branches of the U.S. military. In honor of Veteran’s Day, Veterans@State encourages Department employees to take the opportunity to ask a veteran about their experience this November.
For more information about Veterans@State, email Veterans@state.gov.
Yolanda F. Williams is a security specialist in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). Peter H. Brown is the public affairs officer in INR.