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By Peter Vankevich
In honor of Veterans Day, Ocracoke School since 2010 has recognized islanders who have served in all branches of the military.
This stirring event, instituted by then-Principal Walt Padgett, a special forces vet himself, takes place at the flag pole outside the school and includes singing of the National Anthem, raising the flag and a “thank-you for your service to your country,” composed by some of the students.
Each veteran is honored with a special cap.
Islander Dave Frum, who served in the Vietnam War, has attended every one of these ceremonies and is proud of his collection of hats.
His recounting of that time matches that of the recent Ken Burns/Lynn Novick television series “Vietnam,” which recently aired on public television. This 18-hour documentary chronicles in depth one of the most divisive times in American history.
The eldest of five children, Frum grew up in Morgantown, West Va. After graduating high school in 1967, he enrolled in West Virginia University (WVU) to major in forestry.
After three semesters, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue. So he took a break and took a job in a store. Although he planned on reenrolling in the fall of 1969, he got his draft notice that summer.
Early that September, Frum boarded a bus, and 12 hours later, in the middle of the night, arrived in Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they began immediate processing.
Although that blitz is a bit of a blur, he remembers one of the sergeants yelling to the new recruits: “Remember this date, Sept. 7, 1971. That will be when you will get out.”
After several weeks of basic training, he went to Fort Sam Houston, a U.S. Army post in San Antonio, Texas for10-week training as a combat medic.
Then it was on to Southeast Asia.
Again arriving in the middle of the night and stepping off the long flight, Frum felt the heat and humidity accompanied by the odors of jet fuel and the topical jungle.
“When I got to the bunk, it was too hot for me to sleep,” he said.
He was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division’s battalion aid station south of Saigon.
“Even though I would be a medic attached to an infantry unit, I was handed a M16 that I was expected to use if needed and did not have any casualties to treat,” he said. Vietnam was the first U.S. war where medics carried weapons.
For three months, he went out on nightly forays–often on a boat up a river and getting out in the bush or in rice paddies in search of the enemy.
“You never knew if you would be attacked or where they were,” he said. “I think most of the soldiers we encountered were Vietcong and not NVA (North Vietnamese Army) where we covered,” he said. One night, he recognized one of the captured Vietnamese as someone he knew and who worked at the base during the day.
In the heat of battle, Frum dealt with life-or-death triage of wounds from bullets and shrapnel.
“Ten weeks is not a lot of time to become a medic,” he said, “but we were told by a surgeon to do the best we could to keep the wounded soldiers alive till we could medevac them by helicopter to a hospital.”
The toughest night was when three of his friends were killed in action, one of them his best buddy. “I tried to treat him, but knew he wouldn’t make it,” he said.
The most serious combat was yet to come—in Cambodia.
“We took a long flight into the country landing near Parrot’s Beak and that’s where we battled the NVA on a daily basis,” he said. “Cambodia was beautiful and the people I met liked Americans and hated the NVA. This was real war. We dug fox holes in the middle of the jungle and I treated a lot of wounded soldiers”
During his tour of duty, he heard about the Kent State shooting of student protesters in 1970 and wondered what was happening to America.
“I was able to get out earlier than the two years, and when I returned on April 12, 1971, which was Easter Sunday, it was to a different America,” he said.
He picked up on the change when wearing his uniform on the return flight where he noticed people staring at him and few smiles or “welcome back” comments.
“It was an eye-opener to see the opposition to the war in 14 months,” he said. “Everyone had long hair and wore bell-bottom pants.”
Upon his return, he, too, grew out his hair and sported bell bottoms. Though understanding the opposition to war, he never wavered in his belief that he was serving an important role. Frum and the other combat medics saved a lot of lives during that war and many were killed while assisting others.
The Ken Burns documentary noted that more than 2,000 Army combat medics and Navy corpsmen (medics assigned to Marine units) are listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
“I received several citations, including a bronze star, but I’m most proud of my Combat Medical Badge,” he said. This badge is awarded to those who provide medical support during any period in which a unit was engaged in ground combat.
Unlike many who went to Vietnam and returned with drug problems or PTSD, Frum returned focused.
He re-enrolled in WVU and quickly got his degree.
While still in college, he started working summers with the National Park Service and continued full-time after graduating.
He discovered Ocracoke in 1977 when he accepted a position with the NPS as a nature interpreter and later helping with maintenance in the winter. In 1979, he designed and helped make the Hammock Hills nature trail across from the campground.
After six years on the island, he and his wife, Karen Lovejoy, hit the road, traveling out west and working at several jobs. They returned to Ocracoke in the late 80s and have been here ever since.
For years, Frum worked two jobs. Since 1987, he took care of maintenance for Portsmouth Island village for the National Park Service, a part-time position from which he recently retired, and he has worked for Ocracoke’s water plant since 1992 and still does.
Times change, and the veterans of Vietnam now these days are recognized for their service and willingness to have sacrificed their lives.
He continues to read about the Vietnam conflict. When in Washington, D.C., he visits the Vietnam Wall Memorial to see the names of those he knew that are on the wall. He has yet to watch the Burns Vietnam series but plans to watch it.
He also looks forward to the Ocracoke School ceremony each year.
“The honoring of all those that served the country by the school is one of the most important days of the year for me,” he said.