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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    What’s Going On: Veterans connect to Project Babylift story

    About 35 to 40 members show up every Tuesday at the Griswold Senior Center to hear speakers and hang out with fellow veterans at the Veterans Coffee House of Eastern Connecticut. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Cathy Smith talks about her experience of being evacuated from Vietnam in 1975 during Operation Babylift as she addresses members of the Veterans Coffee House of Eastern Connecticut on Jan. 23, 2024, at the Griswold Senior Center. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Veterans Coffee House of Eastern Connecticut President Dick Wilber of Canterbury, far left, stands on Jan. 23, 2024, at the Griswold Senior Center. with officers and original members Bob Plankey of Brooklyn, Dave Goddette of Plainfield, Bob Lalumiere of Moosup, Fran Bergeron of Plainfield and Treasurer Darrell Stevens. Not pictured are original members Paul Lajeunnese of Moosup and Ed Burdick of Griswold. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Veterans Coffee House of Eastern Connecticut President Dick Wilber of Canterbury tends to some business on Jan. 23, 2024, at the Griswold Senior Center before introducing the morning’s speaker. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Veterans coffee houses have sprung up all over the region in the past decade or so, offering those who served our country a chance to share stories, stay informed about veterans issues and enjoy a good laugh.

    But one in particular stands out, the Veterans Coffee House of Eastern Connecticut in Griswold run by Vietnam War veteran Dick Wilber of Canterbury.

    “It’s one of the best,” said Alex Spears, an outreach coordinator for the Veterans Administration who regularly attends the meetings at the beautiful Griswold Senior Center, as he did so last week.

    Spears, like others who gathered at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, cited the group’s camaraderie as well as the excellent guest speakers who come to offer stories and insights.

    On this day, Wilber had a special surprise for the group, a woman who as a young girl in April 1975 was airlifted to the United States by the U.S. military during Operation Babylift in the waning days of the Vietnam War just before the fall of Saigon. Cathy Smith of Woodstock told the group she never knew her father, and her mother had been killed shortly before the airlift, leaving her an orphan.

    “I was about 4 years old,” she said. “I was with my mom and we were in like a bar area from from what I remember, and the North Vietnamese soldiers came in and they shot up the place and they shot my mom. Before they had come in, my mom had shoved us, myself and another girl that I was with, underneath the table to protect us. But in the process of doing that she was killed.”

    “While we were underneath the table, it seemed like years that we were underneath there. We were scared, we were afraid to say anything. And then a short while later the American soldiers came in and you pulled us out from underneath the table, and you took care of us.”

    She explained that Project Babylift, over a three-week period, brought about 2,500 infants and children to the United States, mostly Amerasians like her fathered by American servicemen. The chance of a biracial child being well treated by the Vietnamese immediately after the long and brutal war was not likely, she added, spurring the American response.

    Smith said she remembers the day of the airlift as being “massive, massive chaos. ... Children everywhere, people just running everywhere, we didn't know what was going on. We weren’t really allowed to bring anything with us. It seems like everything was like at last moment. All I know is I held on to the hand of the girl who was underneath that table with me.”

    After a rocky first adoption, Smith was placed with another American family and settled down, eventually becoming a naturalized citizen.

    Still, there always was a nagging question in the back of her mind about her own family history. Who was her father? Was her mother a prostitute?

    Smith simply didn’t know. And years went by before any answers emerged.

    “A lot of things were held from the adopted parents, as well as the adopted children,” she told the veterans.

    Finally, thanks to ancestry.com, Smith was able to track down a half brother and learned something about her father, a former merchant marine, who by then had died. Digging into her mother’s background was more problematic, with much of the paperwork lost or questionable, she said.

    What’s important, she added, was the the fact “We endured Vietnam together. We saw things that we shouldn't have seen ... That said, I wouldn't change anything that happened because I wouldn't be standing here, making a connection with with you, and that's precious to me because those are my oldest memories and maybe your oldest memories as well. So that means a lot to me.”

    Smith’s presentation elicited a standing ovation from the 40 veterans who attended Tuesday’s coffeehouse, most of whom were from the Vietnam era. The vets I talked to said the most amazing part of the Griswold coffeehouse is the variety of speakers brought in by Wilber, who studied history in college; another thing they liked was the ability to bring family members to meetings, which many other coffeehouses discourage.

    The independent group spun off from a coffeehouse in Plainfield, and started with just seven members. Two years later, there are about 90 names on the list of people who have attended, and 35 to 40 come regularly. The coffeehouses, for some, have supplanted the VFW as a more therapeutic place for veterans to gather and mull over the meaning of their service.

    “We’re a friendly group,” Wilber, who did two tours in Vietnam, told me.

    “It’s a great place,” added member John McMechan of Griswold. “Everybody should be able to come to a place like this.”

    “We get a lot of good speakers,” said member Joe Gulick of Canterbury. “Veterans here have been stationed in a lot of the same places and have a shared history.”

    Gulick told the group after Smith’s talk that he had encountered a large group of refugees while stationed in Asia, and felt he didn’t exhibit much compassion at the time while he was in his early 20s.

    “For years I felt guilty about that,” he said. “I learned compassion by the time I left. It really is a small world.”

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To send him story ideas, email l.howard@theday.com.

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