Uncovering her father's war story

Specialist Rick Serynek in a helicopter during his Specialist Rick Serynek in a helicopter during his stint in the Vietnam War, circa 1969. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kristine McDonald

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Kristine McDonald's letter about her father finally sharing details of his service in Vietnam.

 

A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hit the Command and Control Ship from the 116th Assault Helicopter Unit while its crew was rescuing injured soldiers during the Vietnam War in 1969. Spc. Richard C. Serynek saw it coming but was unable to communicate with the pilot; the helicopter was hit and exploded, causing him to fall approximately 50 feet to the ground.

Before Spc. Serynek enlisted in the Army in 1968 he was Rick Serynek, and he wasn't yet my father. Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, he had already met my mother but did not marry until he returned to the States a wounded veteran.

He went on to have three daughters and raise a family in his hometown of Huntington Station. I am his middle child. I was raised in the same town as my dad; I graduated from the same high school; I married young, just like him. My father had three children, all girls; I have four children, all girls.

My father and I have an incredible amount of things in common, including a deep-rooted stubbornness and a small set of patience. Yet for all our similarities and throughout all these years, I never quite knew Spc. Serynek, at least not until a rainy day in July 2012 at 38 years old.

My dad's military past and his service in Vietnam had not been a subject that had been discussed in any depth during my childhood. I only knew the man I saw in front of me. He worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, where he is now in his 40th year. He is an unbelievable carpenter and can fix anything put in front of him. He proudly wears his Disabled American Veteran baseball hat and has an American flag hanging on his house year-round.

One afternoon this past July, while visiting my parents, my acceptance of my father's silence changed. I decided to ask questions about his military service, his time in Vietnam and about the day he was injured. I was surprised when he sat down with me and my sister and started to answer our questions. He talked about his company, the Hornets, and some of the guys he served with in his unit, the Wasps. He showed a few medals, such as his Purple Heart, and he had a box filled with old papers. He pulled out another medal, a Silver Star, which I learned his father had received from his service in World War II. You could feel how proud he was of his father by the way he spoke about him. I understood, because sitting there listening to my dad, I was beginning to have the same feeling, too.

A few days before July 8, 1969, my father, a crew chief and crew engineer, decided to weld together two ammunition boxes. He discovered he was running out of ammunition in the field and decided to fix the problem himself. This single act may have been the thing that saved his life. On the morning of July 8, not in his usual troop carrier but in a Command and Control Ship, they unloaded the commanders to base and headed back out to "dust off," a term meaning to medevac (medical evacuation) injured soldiers as requested during a firefight. Overwhelmed by the number of wounded soldiers, they threw the seats out of the copter to make room for more. Hanging on the side of this Huey, in his usual position, my father saw the smoke from an RPG and knew what was to come. He tried to communicate with the pilot, but not knowing the plug from his helmet was not in correctly, he was unable to warn him. The RPG landed inside the helicopter on the opposite side of the double stacked ammunition box my father had built only a few days before, and exploded. When he woke up on the ground and saw the helicopter burning not far away, he tried to stand but realized he couldn't. With one arm severely injured and unusable, he unzipped his suit and tucked it inside, rolling away from the fire.

My father's memories of the next couple of weeks are vague because he was in and out of consciousness. He remembers at some point waking up in a tub of ice. He also remembers thinking about what could have happened to his newly purchased leather jump boots. What he didn't know at the time was how injured he was. He had multiple fragment wounds over his entire body, a fractured jaw that was wired shut, perforation of his right eye, which he lost all together, and a compound fracture of his wrist. He was placed on the seriously ill list. His condition was so severe that the telegram to his parents stated that there was cause for concern and imminent danger to his life.

Because of the severity of his injuries, evacuation was delayed until he made improvement. Approximately two weeks after the accident, my father was stable enough that they were able to evacuate him to Camp Drake in Japan. From there he was taken to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C., and finally to St. Albans VA Hospital in Queens. He spent the next six months in St. Albans recovering. Even after he was released from the hospital, my father made several trips back for multiple surgeries which included metal plates put in his head, nose surgery and rebuilding his cheek.

It is difficult to express through written word the change I felt in emotion toward my father after learning what happened to him in Vietnam. For my whole life, he had just been my dad -- a simple and regular person. I now understand that this experience shaped the person I know and now all the faults I would see in him as a daughter have now faded into acceptance. He is the true representation of an ordinary hero that you see walking around Home Depot.

When the time came for him to step up and serve his country as a soldier, he did so. His body is full of scars and so is his mind. But he doesn't dwell on them. To him, sacrifice is just part of it. His beliefs and values have never changed though the years. He is simple. He is unselfish. He believes that the United States of America is a wonderful country.

That day in July was the end of my conversation with my father about his time in Vietnam, but it was the beginning of a new measure of respect for a man and a soldier that I'm proud to call my dad.

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