BETHANY BEACH, Del. - Delaware National Guard members witnessed history Saturday, Sept. 7, as they gathered along with family and friends to honor the retirement of Army Master Sgt. Richard Hitchens, the last active member of the Delaware Army National Guard who served in Vietnam.
“This is truly the end of an era,” said Army Maj. Gen Francis D. Vavala, adjutant general for the DNG, who said that Hitchens epitomized the term soldier.
Speaking to those assembled, Hitchens stated, “One day back in May of 1968 my mother and father took me to the bus station in Salisbury, Md., put me on a Trailways bus and I shipped off for the rest of my life. I committed. I committed myself to the country.”
Hitchens, the youngest of 11 children, grew up on a farm. Like seven of his brothers who joined the army before him, Hitchens was looking for a better life. So in 1968, at the age of 16, Hitchens enlisted with a doctored birth certificate.
“I remember thinking I’d made a mistake when I got to basic training,” Hitchens said.
“I told the drill sergeant I was only 16 because I wanted to go home. He just said ‘I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.’”
By 1969, Hitchens was in Vietnam serving as a radio telephone operator for a forward observer unit with the 1st Cavalry Division. In September, a little more than a year after he’d boarded the Trailways bus, Hitchens was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with valor for his actions during a firefight.
“We were out for a 30-day mission on patrol when we got pinned down,” Hitchens explained.
“The machine gunners were screaming for ammo but everyone was either dead or wounded. We were about to be overrun. I remember thinking I can’t die here. I grabbed ammo and started running it up to the gunners. I became the assistant gunner and helped lay down fire.”
The war and the sentiment in the country changed things for Hitchens. When he finished his service obligation he didn’t reenlist but instead returned home. For three years Hitchens hung out with his friends, friends who hadn’t gone to war.
“They had no concept of what I had gone through,” Hitchens said. “The only people who had any concept of all the trauma and things I went through were people in uniform. I still hadn’t decompressed from the war.”
In 1977, a friend who was in the DNG asked Hitchens if he’d think about joining. At the time, the DNG had a program called Try One, which allowed members to join the Guard for only one year to see if they liked it. Hitchens did and he’s never looked back.
“The Delaware National Guard became my family,” Hitchens said.
By then a sergeant, Hitchens joined the 2198th Maintenance Company in Dagsboro, Del. as a small arms repairman. Around soldiers again, Hitchens finally began to decompress and started on the path that would eventually lead him to become the company’s first sergeant serving all but the last year of his service with the unit.
“I played the hand I was dealt and I won,” Hitchens said. “If you’d told Richard Hitchens years ago that he was going to be first sergeant he would have laughed at you.”
As first sergeant, Hitchens deployed to Iraq in 2009 with the maintenance company, which had by then been renamed the 262nd. At that time Hitchens brought with him more than 38 years of experience in service and felt he had a lot to offer the soldiers under him. “A lot of these kids had never been out of Sussex county, let alone Iraq, so they were scared to death. That’s how I felt when I left Sussex county years ago and went to Vietnam,” Hitchens said. “I know that feeling and what it takes to move beyond it.”
Hitchens also knows how hard it is to readjust after coming home.
“I came home from Vietnam on a Monday, was processed out by Tuesday morning. Tuesday morning I was on flight home for 30 days [rest and relaxation] and by Wednesday afternoon I was walking on the streets around town,” Hitchens said. “There was no transition.”
When the 262nd returned from Iraq in 2010, Hitchens resisted a transfer to battalion insisting he be able to stay for an additional two years in order to care for the soldiers while they transitioned back to their civilian lives.
Now retired after nearly 43 years of service, Hitchens wants to continue helping soldiers by working as a counselor at the Georgetown Veterans Administration Hospital.
“I do things for friends of mine who I served with in Vietnam, who I watched die, who I held in my arms, who died in my arms. I do things for them, the things that they wanted to do, the things they couldn’t do. That drives me,” Hitchens said. “I want to be the first one in my family to get his college degree. Out of all my brothers and sisters, if I can succeed in this, I’ll be the first one.”
“He’s inspiring,” said Pvt. Spencer Bradford, a new recruit to the DNG who leaves for basic training Monday. “When he was talking, I kind of felt heartfelt. That’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Now 62, Hitchens is enrolled full time at Delaware Technical Community College to earn a degree in human services counseling.
His parting message to the soldiers assembled to see him off: keep moving forward.
“What you’re doing now is probably going to be one of the greatest things that each and every one of you will ever do in your life,” Hitchens said. “I hate to think where I would be, if I never put the uniform on.”