By: Terry Simpson
When the Monroe County High School Class of 2019 enters the gymnasium on Thursday night, May 23, one might notice one of the graduates that seems a little out of place — like 51 years out of place.
Richard Ferguson, a disabled Vietnam Veteran, should have graduated from Tompkinsville High School in 1968 but unfortunately, he dropped out during his sophomore year, then a “little thing called Vietnam” got in between him and his diploma. But that will change next week.
SPEAKING WITH FERGUSON
An older gentleman pulls his pickup truck onto my front lawn, right up to the front porch and steps out, cane before him as he exits. He struggles a bit as he ambles over and sits down on the porch swing next to me. As the swing sways in the in the breeze he says, “I heard you was wanting to talk to me.”
Richard Ferguson is dressed simply in a button-up shirt and a pair of blue jeans. White hair peeks out of a ball cap proclaiming, “Vietnam Veteran,” and covers half his face in a neatly trimmed beard. Years of work, worry, happiness, laughter and things he prefers not to speak of line his face.
He doesn’t seem to smile often, isn’t much on answering questions and can be a quiet man — almost gruff — when he does grant you the privilege.
Yet, he is one of those older southern gentlemen who, when he speaks, you better listen. His laughter is contagious and when he wants to tell you something you are best to just sit still and take it in.
And, he is my uncle. When I was given the story assignment, I had no idea I would learn more about him on that porch swing interview than I ever did.
“You are just a kid,” I am 26 years his junior and he tells me, “Kids these days—they wouldn’t survive the things I have, not in life or the Army.”
It’s not something many like to talk about it, but he was there, and he began to share bits and pieces of that part of his life.
He’s been waiting for 50 years to receive a special recognition most of us take for granted.
MEMORIES GROWING UP
Ferguson spoke lovingly of his mother, “Mama was trying to raise us. She had no money to put us through school. No money for clothes or other things. I quit school in 1966 and I got a job.”
His mother, the late Lena (Hamilton/Ferguson) Moore, was widowed when Richard was 14 years old.
After her husband, Humble Ferguson’s death, she struggled to raise nine children of her own as well as a step-son. She eventually remarried the late Ernest Moore, bringing six more children into her family.
She set quite the example for Richard and her other children, probably without ever realizing it, he said.
While she struggled, she pulled herself together, found a job and worked her way up. It was only when she was interested in a promotion that she decided to go after her General Education Diploma (GED).
Ferguson continued that his mother worked hard and received her GED in 1980, the same year Richard’s youngest brother, Michael, graduated from high school. She also received the promotion and worked as a social worker for the State of Kentucky until her retirement.
“I guess I turned out about like her,” he said, noting that so many years later, he will follow in her footsteps and receive his diploma during Thursday night’s ceremonies.
After leaving high school, Ferguson left Kentucky to find construction work in Indiana. Soon after he came home and was drafted into the army and then sent to Vietnam. He did his basic training and Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Fort Knox and then went to truck driving school at Fort Ord in California.
He served 13 months in Vietnam. While there he drove “gun trucks,” escorting convoys and providing protection.
When pressed for more specific information, Ferguson — like many other Vietnam vets — deflected the questions to change the subject to that of amusing childhood stories of he and his siblings, saying, “Anybody who went over there had a rough time. It is unreal the things we saw. It still gives me nightmares.”
Looking into his haunted eyes, I decided to find more information without pressing him further.
A largely forgotten part of the war was the one fought by the U.S. Army’s gun trucks. Hollywood would lead one to believe that everything moved by helicopter in Vietnam, but the truth is that truck convoys supplied most of the food, fuel and ammunition to units which became targets for enemy ambushes.
Gun trucks — such as those driven by Ferguson — were built, not by the Pentagon, but by teenage soldiers trying to keep themselves alive.
The U.S. Army’s unsung heroes: the hand-made, five-ton, armored protectors that defended convoys from enemy attack and helped to influence today’s combat tactics. These trucks were made from scrap piles, salvaged steel, sandbags and anything else they could find.
LEAVING THE BATTLEFIELD
After leaving Vietnam, Ferguson was stationed in Germany for six months. It was there that he finished his schooling, earning his GED. He brought the paperwork back to Tompkinsville and turned it into the school system to get his official diploma, but unfortunately, it was lost.
BACK TO TODAY
The matter was dropped until recently, 50 years later, when Ferguson joined the Department of Veterans (DAV).
During those years he worked as a truck driver, did construction work and worked at a nuclear power plant in Hartsville, Tenn.
At the plant, Ferguson was injured and required surgery. From that, added with the exposure to Agent Orange chemicals in Vietnam, Ferguson suffers from arthritis, nerve damage and other issues.
Agent Orange was a toxic chemical used to clear trees in the Vietnam war, which caused many cancers and other health problems to those exposed.
“They sprayed it everywhere and it killed everything. It was awful and really messed a lot of us up,” Ferguson said.
“You know I fussed a lot back then. I didn’t want to talk about it. I hated it. Finally, signing up for the DAV, it is helping me so much, anything I need, they get it for me.”
He points to a device clipped onto his shirt, explaining that it was given to him by the DAV. It connects to his cell phone and helps him to complete phone calls more easily. He also has received hearing aids and assistance with different claims he has filed and the long-awaited diploma. “They have been very helpful, and I am very appreciative of that.”
Unfortunately, things weren’t always that way for Vietnam Veterans. Ferguson shares stories of those days, “When I came home, all I wanted to hear was welcome home.” Instead his friends and family asked if he had been in jail. There were no recognition ceremonies or parades as there are for returning soldiers today. “We were treated like ****,” he says.
As more awareness is made available through events such as the Vietnam Memorial Traveling Wall which was in Tompkinsville recently, Ferguson feels somewhat better about the way he and his fellow soldiers were treated.
He remembers going out to the park for the ceremony and a few more times while the Wall was in Tompkinsville. He says he was honored to be a part of those ceremonies. With great courage, he made his way through the list of names on that wall at the park that week, noting how he had paused near the memory table of Monroe Countian’s lost to the war, “They were good friends, my buddies.”
Ferguson will once again be honored when he receives his high school diploma. Due to the efforts of the DAV, the 50 years-ago lost paperwork was recovered and sent from Franklin to the Monroe County School Board of Education.
Superintendent Amy Thompson, expressed her pride to Ferguson, inviting him to walk the line with the 2019 graduating seniors.
She encouraged him, saying, “We would really like for you to come out and be recognized as a disabled veteran. It is a very special occasion and we want to show we are proud of you and your service to our country.”
Ferguson’s health problems might keep him from attending — or maybe his bit of a stubborn streak will allow him to stand among so many and be recognized.
While a simple “Thank you for your service or Welcome Home,” means the world to him, he is humble and doesn’t care for a lot of attention revolving around him.
As he pulled himself up out of that swing, he laughed and said, “Is that all you needed to know? I hope I could help.” He climbed back into his pickup truck with the license plate reading disabled Vietnam Veteran, pausing for just a moment to let me snap a picture. I told him I would be proud to attend the graduation and hoped I would see him there.
He laughed, “Well whatever… we will see.”
Richard is married to Jo Ann Ferguson and they live in Tompkinsville. They have several children and grandchildren.