Janesville resident, Vietnam veteran and Milton Veterans Park pavilion volunteer committee member Dick Fry said much of his inspiration to build a pavilion in Milton’s Veterans Park came from a desire to honor fellow soldiers, including one in particular: his father.
Ervin Fry was in the US Army and served in WWII. He returned from the war and died of natural causes, 10 days before 9/11, at the age of 80. Describing his father as “very patriotic,” Dick said he was grateful his father was spared enduring the national tragedy.
Ervin Fry, in the years following WWII, raised his family, including five children, in the small community of Albion. Dick recalled fondly the small, unincorporated community and his two-room schoolhouse.
In 1958, when Dick was 9, the family moved to Milton. Ervin went to work for an excavation company. He later purchased it, calling it Ervin Fry and Sons Excavating. Dick found summer work there while in school operating heavy equipment, he said.
Dick graduated from Milton High School in 1967 and enrolled for classes at U-Rock, Today, UW-Whitewater at Rock County. He hoped to transfer to UW-Whitewater, but the university system forwarded his records to UW-Madison, he said. The mix-up interrupted the application process, causing a lapse in Dick’s enrollment, he said.
With his plans altered, at the age of 17, Dick and a friend, Gary Johnson, began a pizza parlor. Soon after, both received induction notices, and each applied for a business deferment. Both were denied, Dick said. The two men each chose to enlist, Dick in the Army and Gary in the Air Force.
In 1969, Dick was sent to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he completed basic training. Next he was sent to Fort Polk, La., for AIT (advanced individualized training), where focus was placed on learning to operate an M16 rifle.
As AIT came to a close, Dick was offered additional training. He chose noncommissioned officer’s (NCO) school in Fort Benning, Ga. Four months later, he emerged as Sgt. Dick Fry.
A two-month return to Fort Polk followed, where he served as a training instructor and oversaw a supply room, next came a two-week leave spent in Milton, and then he reported for duty in California. He was shipped aboard a French commercial airliner to Long Binh, an Army base near Saigon.
Stationed in the jungles of Tay Ninh province, Fry said he and his platoon had orders to search for the enemy: the NVA (North Vietnamese Army).
Said Fry: “When you got there, it was a big change in thinking: You thought you were going to help -- not necessarily improve the world -- but improve the living conditions of the Vietnamese. Once you arrived and were there for a while, you realized that it was more a matter of survival.”
Fry said within his company of 120 men there were four platoons, each with about 30 men. He was assigned to a unit with three sergeants, one of which served as squad leader. He and another became what he described as “co-sergeants.” He was assigned the job of point man.
The company operated from a fire support base, described by Fry as a camp encircled with armaments.
“They were defensive positions with big guns,” he said.
In 1970, Fry said he and his platoon left the firebase as part of a larger initiative to spread out and find the enemy.
He and “Sgt. Haskell” were in charge of placing claymore mine booby traps, he said.
Several weeks later, the platoon was told that the company would be relocating to Cambodia.
Within hours, he said, the company was ordered to move up the Mekong River, but Fry and Haskell had to return and collect the company’s claymores so American troops coming behind would not encounter them. The two men were successful in their mission and rejoined the company as it entered into Cambodia.
Upon entering Cambodia, Fry said: “It was the worst possible thing that could happen: the NVA knew four days in advance of our movement and consequently, there was a lot of carnage upon our arrival. There were a lot of killed and wounded. We lost 10 to 15 of those coming in.
“We set up camp and we just moved every day. We were searching for the radio connection tower.
“On the 13thday, I was wounded.”
On May 24, Fry said, after a firefight, the men returned to a spot where they had discarded some gear. While there, they were mortared with two rounds.
“I remember the ‘boop’ sound. I hollered ‘incoming,’ and Sgt. Haskell hollered ‘hit the ground.’
“The first round killed ‘Sgt. Blue.’ The second round came in and missed my head, but it was under my chest when I hit the ground. It blew me into the air,” Fry said.
After returning to the ground, Fry said: “I knew I was hit bad and I had to get to a tree so I could get my right arm above my heart.” Fry passed out, he said, and was later told that a medic had pronounced him dead.
Six soldiers were killed and 13 were wounded that day, Fry said.
The soldiers moved with the wounded, leaving Fry behind, but an assistant gunner from another unit realized he was missing, returned, and carried him to the evacuation location.
Said Fry: “I don’t know his name or even if he made it home, but if it were not for him, I would not have lived.
“It was five or six hours later before I was on the helicopter out. I lost a lot of blood,” Fry recalled. He was taken to the 85thEvac Medical Hospital, he said, where he waited with other wounded soldiers for a turn to receive care.
At the facility, Fry underwent surgery to repair chest damage. The mortar blast left a 4-inch hole, he said.
He spent six weeks recovering at the evacuation hospital. A volunteer surgeon from Minneapolis, whom he came to know as “Dr. Gau,” gave him advice and care.
“He talked to me everyday about how I would survive,” Fry said, and he learned from Gau that the damage to his body was extensive: there was damage and shrapnel in his right lung, his subclavian artery, a major vein to the right arm, and his collarbone were also damaged. Surgeons had repaired veins on the heart, but the heart itself was not damaged, Fry said.
Once stabilized, Fry was moved to Camp Drake, Japan. An operation was scheduled to amputate his right arm, but sensation returned to his fingertips, and the operation was postponed. He was told his improvement might be limited, making him a candidate for amputation within five years.
After a five-week stay in Japan, Fry was moved to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington D.C. He returned to the states in July of 1970.
At Walter Reed, Fry said, he was scheduled for surgery to repair his collarbone, but “an unusual infection in my blood” prevented the procedure. He was moved again, this time to Carl R. Darnell Army Medical Center in Fort Hood, Texas.
A yearlong stay followed.
“I was attached to the hospital; I was in and out. I had no use of my right arm,” Fry said.
A disconnected collarbone and damaged nerves caused pain, Fry said. At Darnell, a plan was developed to harvest a piece of his hipbone and fuse it to the disconnected collarbone, but Fry felt the pace with which his care came was slow.
Feeling neglected and in pain, he said, he wrote a 5-page letter to President Nixon, Wisconsin legislators and members of the veterans administration, looking for relief.
According to Fry, Nixon intervened on his behalf; help came, he said, and he was shipped to Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago.
At the naval hospital, Fry said, the orthopedic surgeon discovered that the unattached ends of his collarbone were too damaged for repair. They were removed. After that surgery, Fry said, he was sent home.
Officially, he was retired from service, but not discharged, so that he could be a recipient of future care.
He was 21.
Fry returned to Milton and nearly three years later, he said, he went to work with his dad. The work served as physical therapy for his arm, he said. He and his dad worked together until 1978, when they sold the business.
In the years that followed, Fry worked in several capacities, he said. He owned several restaurants in Milton, and worked as a carpenter. He poured foundations for houses.
In 1987, he joined Frank Brothers, which he described as a road paving and site work company, working as a supervisor, a job he held for 23 years. He retired in 2010.
Fry said after his time of service, his life sometimes developed unexplained changes. He found inconsistencies in his thoughts, which affected his relationships and decisions.
Two milestones helped him achieve stability, he said: the first was his marriage to his current and fifth wife, Phyllis, in 2005, and the second was a diagnosis of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which came after an episode which was triggered by a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.
Known to many as the wall which lists in chronological order the names of 58,000 American soldiers who lost their lives or remained unaccounted for while serving in Vietnam and South East Asia, he and Phyllis visited in 2007, Fry said.
As he stood before the wall, he said: “Everything came crashing down on me; the memories came back.”
At the wall, a reference book indexes panels, matching them by number with casualties listed by date, Phyllis said.
On the wall, Dick said, “there were six names in a row and I recognized the names.” The men had died on the day he was injured.
After the episode at the wall, he sought counseling. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2010, he said.
Before his diagnosis, he didn’t know what PTSD was, Fry said. The diagnosis explained some of the more disorganized patterns that had emerged in his life.
Said Fry: “(Fellow Vietnam veteran) Jarrett Goodman helped me get help. There is no cure for PTSD. It is just something you live with.
“It is all about memories that remind you about things that are traumatic. They are true nightmares.”
He described Phyllis as his anchor, adding that she says it’s her job is to keep him alive.
“Since we’ve been married, I’ve had a heart attack, heart disease, and now I have leukemia,” he said. He has also been diagnosed with diabetes, he added. He believes some of his conditions are related to Agent Orange. He believes he was exposed while in Cambodia, he said.
While his life has been filled with both sorrow and happiness, he said: “It’s been a long road, and I had a lot of fun in life until that trip to the wall.
“I have been back to the wall (in 2014), but I can’t approach it. It hurt way too much.”
Through life, he had a code, he said: “never look back.”
He built his code on advice given to him by Dr. Gau, who told him, he said, that he should live life to the fullest because he might not live past 40. Today, Dick Fry is nearly 70. He has six children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
For Fry, building the pavilion in Veterans Park represents the meaning of service and its sacrifice, and a bond that continues after wartime and across generations. The project actually began in 2013, he said. He began attending the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee meetings five years ago, and the group talked about building the pavilion, but the project never came to fruition, he said.
Today, groundbreaking has begun, and fundraising continues. Those interested in contributing to the project should contact Milton City Hall.