By MEGAN ULRICH
Express News Staff
This week we continue to tell the stories of some of our local veterans. Women and men from all walks of life, of all backgrounds and ethnicities make up the branches of the United States Armed Forces. They are young and old, those who were drafted and those that enlisted. There are those that served a few years in the service and others who made their service a career. Veterans are special people that have sacrificed a part of their lives so that our freedoms are not jeopardized. Veterans of foreign wars have deployed to many areas of the world throughout history. They have been on the shores of Iwo Jima, the deserts of the Middle East, trenches across Europe and jungles in Asia. They lost pieces of their lives, they lost comrades and some have lost their health.
Vinnie Dolan was born in Long Island in 1939 and spent his first eleven years there. After the death of his father, his mother remarried and the family relocated to Brooklyn. His stepfather was a trolley car driver and the move reduced his commute.
In 1958 he enlisted in the Air Force, though not because it was his first choice.
“I wanted to join the Marines, but the recruiter was out to lunch when I went,” he chuckles.
The USAF recruiter was not on his lunch break and a young Vinnie Dolan signed on for a four year tour that would become a career.
He was 18 years old when he arrived in San Antonio, Texas for basic training. From there he was assigned to Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyo., where he received technical training to work on airplanes. Great Falls, Mont. was his next assignment and also his first “permanent” assignment. There he worked on a ground crew as an aerospace ground equipment technician. He was there until March of 1959.
He then transferred overseas and spent a year in England. He wasn’t impressed with the country.
“It was rainy and wet. Also, it was pre-Beatles, so it was very dull,” he laughs.
The next year he was in Germany, which he enjoyed more than England. Half way through his time in Germany he travelled back to the US on a personal mission. He returned to Brooklyn and married his high school sweetheart, Catherine; she was 19 and he, 20. He and his bride then returned to Germany as a married couple to finish his tour.
The couple then spent about four and a half years in Dover, Del. where he continued to work as a ground crew equipment technician.
Then he was sent to Thailand from 1966-67. He laughs as he remembers marching over a bridge in Kanchanaburi over the River Kwai, singing a song from the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, a WW II film.
During the Vietnam War USAF troops were stationed at air bases in Thailand, where 80 percent of air strikes originated. Between 1962 and 1971, the US military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants over the Asian countryside. These were often used to deny the enemy the cover of the jungle and to manipulate farming. The most commonly used chemical combination is best known as Agent Orange, a name that came from the color of the barrels it was stored in. Vinnie Dolan remembers it being used in the area surrounding his base in Thailand to clear the surrounding area of forest. He wouldn’t realize its effects until years later.
Vinnie returned to the U.S. in 1967 and spent a year each in Niagara Falls and Florida before returning to New York to care for his aging parents. In 1970 he volunteered for recruiting duty and became the Operation Supervisor for Recruiting. He handled the five boroughs as well as Suffolk and Nassau counties.
The draft was still active until early 1973, but Dolan had no problem meeting his enlistment quotas despite the war in Vietnam. The army was responsible for most ground troops, so those that enlisted often signed on with the Air Force and Navy.
He enjoyed his time in recruiting.
“The Air Force had a lot to offer kids from the city. They could escape the threats of the city and get training and a good job,” he says.
He also has no issue with recruiting during war time.
“I thought we were right to be in Vietnam. I thought we should be there,” he says.
In 1978 Dolan retired from the USAF as a Master Sergeant after 20 years of service. In 1987, he and Catherine sold their home and moved to Old Forge. Catherine had visited the area with a friend and fell in love with it and they decided to make a home here.
Vinnie has suffered with several health problems over the years, including throat cancer that cost him a vocal cord via laryngectomy in 1995, prostate cancer and diabetes. All can be attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Thailand. Only recently was he granted a 100 percent service disability and compensated retroactively to his first claim filing, which was initially denied in 2001.
Vinnie is a lifetime member of the VFW and Knights of Columbus and serves as Vice Commander of the American Legion.He is decorated with several medals, including The USAF Commendation Medal, The US Army Good Conduct Medal, The National Defense Medal, The USAF Good Conduct Medal, The Vietnam Service Medal, The Vietnam Campaign Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Palm. He also received the NYS Conspicuous Service Cross from Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
Catherine and Vinnie celebrated fifty-three years of marriage in January. Their family includes son Vinnie and daughter Helen, who is a lieutenant in the US Navy, as well as three granddaughters. He is now fully retired.
Thank you for your service, Mr. Dolan.