Remembering Vietnam veterans with ‘flag cards’
Air Force veteran Ben Lathrop, a former Norwich mayor who served in the military from 1966 to 1970 and spent part of his second tour at three different bases in Thailand, said he has been searching for a way to honor the 58,220 American men and women who died during the Vietnam War era.
“I served admirably and patriotically and I would do it again,” he said during a June telephone interview.
Lathrop has created 30,000 laminated flag cards since about 2014. They feature a star from a retired American flag on the front and a picture of the flag on the back with this statement:
“I am part of our American flag. I have flown over a home in the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and winds have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder you are not forgotten.”
Lathrop, 74, has another 28,220 credit-card sized flag cards to make to reach his goal.
He said he receives cantons (rectangular, blue background with 50 stars) from his patriotic brother-in-law, Chuck Andrews, and retired flags from drop-off spots at American Legion/Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and Norwich City Hall.
“I cut the stars out where they’ll fit on the card and I laminate them on a regular 9.5-by-11 sheet, and then I cut each individual out and re-laminate them. So it’s quite a process,” he said.
Lathrop performs a ceremony on any remaining remnants and they are burned out of respect. “You can’t leave anything, not even a small thread.”
So far, his flag cards have been distributed locally via VFWs, American Legions and La Stella Italian Market in Taftville, and also sent to Afghanistan, as well as to retired Army veteran Richard Friedrich in Tampa, Fla., a friend who originally suggested the flag-card approach. Lathrop’s goal now is to make and distribute more of the cards locally to anyone who wants them.
Friedrich and Vietnam veteran Tom Burke, who are Lathrop’s heroes and mentors, have been “an integral part of the process,” he said.
Lathrop also credits Dr. Cornelio Hong at the Veterans Administrative clinic in New London with giving him the courage, stamina and drive to tackle this project.
“He was the first doctor I saw down there.”
Hong said during a telephone interview that he is “very proud” of Lathrop’s perseverance in spite of his health issues.
“It means a lot to us veterans,” said Hong, who served as an army doctor during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and as past national surgeon general for the VFW.
“Unless you are really personally involved in the service, it’s very difficult to understand what most veterans are going through right now. And having worked at the VA, I am able to at least comprehend emotionally, as well as physically, what most veterans are going through. Unfortunately, not every veteran goes to the VA clinic or seeks help, especially those Vietnam veterans. They kind of just stay away from everybody,” Hong said.
At VFW Post 594 in Norwich, Air Force veteran Kenneth LaRochelle said he supports Lathrop’s efforts “100 percent, especially today with all of the antics that are going on and disrespect for the flag and veterans.”
“We honor our veterans and the sacrifice that they made. As they say, ‘All gave some, but some gave all,’” said LaRochelle, 77, who was stationed at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Fla., and served from 1961 to 1965.
The flag cards are “a great gesture to remember anybody that lost their life in the military, in particular defending your country,” said Navy veteran Barney Laverty of Norwich (who served on a submarine mainly in the North Atlantic Ocean from 1972 to 1976), at the VFW post.
Since Hong retired, Lathrop is cared for by Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Stephanie Chiappa, who he described in an email as “an incredibly gifted young lady, so compassionate about the needs of all veterans!”
Some of Lathrop’s health issues are due to Agent Orange, which “was prevalent on all the bases no matter where you were stationed, mostly in Vietnam, where it was used to defoliate,” he said.
Lathrop recently had carotid artery surgery and had prostate cancer. Additionally, he has neuropathy and high blood pressure, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from smoking for 35 years.
Depression and anxiety
After being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, because of wartime experiences, Lathrop said medication helped him control his depression and anxiety. In the past, he added that he “couldn’t look at a flag or listen to the anthem without shedding a tear. It would just get too emotional for me. So that’s why this therapy has come through with me doing these flag cards.”
He said there “are other people out there” who create flag cards or something similar and distribute them. “God bless them.”
Lathrop said this flag-card project makes him feel good and hopes “other people will recognize the fact that this is a remembrance” and that the cards will “get in the right hands.”
In the future, Lathrop said he would like to teach schoolchildren about flag protocols and would welcome requests from school representatives.
“There are protocols to the flag whether retired or half mast, saluted or taken up or down (sunrise and dusk).”
Also, if the flag flies at night, there must be a light on it.
Respect for the flag
When flags are tattered or torn, he said “you’re supposed to take them down and replace them. It’s out of respect for the flag. It just doesn’t fly. It flies and remembers the people who sacrificed their lives. When I see one tattered, I don’t hesitate. I go and talk to somebody.”
Over the years, Lathrop has volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul and TVCCA Meals on Wheels and “anywhere else” he was needed, he said. Now retired, he works as a staff member at Norwich Golf Course.
“It’s my patriotic passion to think of the people that sacrificed their lives for our freedom. It’s very important to me,” said Lathrop, adding the average age of service members during the Vietnam War was 19, “all young kids.”
Many veterans feel guilty that they made it home, he said.
Over 2.7 million Americans served in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973. Over 150,000 were wounded and 58,220 were killed. As of earlier this year, 1,584 were still unaccounted for (missing in action), according to Defense POW/MIA accounting Agency, dpaa-mil.sites.crmforce.mil.
Veterans dealing with issues can reach out to their local VA, Lathrop said. “There’s so much help out there, whether it’s the VFWs, the Norwich Vet Center or anything within the system. Southeast Connecticut is well represented at the VA in New London. That’s a wonderful place. I can’t say enough good things about Stephanie Chiappa” and the other VA doctors and what they do for veterans.
Veterans can also fill out an application and access “My HealtheVet” by going to myhealth.va.gov, “which is a website that I can log into, order my prescriptions and I can talk to somebody,” he said. “There’s an 800 number if you need help.”
When he hears from veterans that they “never applied for their benefits, I help them because the thing is they’ve got so much access to so much help.”
Lathrop said he is thankful for his wife, Barbara, whom he describes as his best and closest friend, and his Vietnam Army veteran buddy Bob Burke.
“Don’t forget: Heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags,” he said. “God bless America.”
To receive a bulk amount of laminated flag cards or request Lathrop speak about flag protocols in a school setting, contact Ben Lathrop by email at email@example.com.
Jan Tormay, a longtime Norwich resident, now lives in Westerly.
If you or a loved one has thoughts about death or suicide, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and press 1, or use other emergency services. Or you can chat with a trained counselor online at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net,” according to veteranshealthlibrary.va.gov/142,41555_VA.