NEWARK, Del. — James “Bub” Hackney said he uses the word “hero” sparingly, but when he spoke of his three classmates who were killed in action in the Vietnam War, he found the word fitting.
“These three young men won’t grow old with us and truly deserve that title,” he said to a crowd of fellow Christiana High School class of 1965 alumni, friends and family during a ceremony April 13.
At the newly established Brian Conley Veteran Resiliency Center in Middletown, Del., the group came together to honor their classmates who were killed during the war — Jon James Hayden, James Lawrence Ripanti and Alan Gwinn Geissinger — as well as others who served.
Approximately 50 members of the CHS class of 1965 served in the armed forces between 1965 and 1975.
The alumni came together to purchase memorial bricks to be displayed at the Veteran Resiliency Center, which opened April 27 through Warriors Helping Warriors, a nonprofit started by retired Maj. Kevin Conley in 2013.
The center, which now offers veterans in need additional support through living spaces, a recreation center and other services, came together after two years of work. The April 13 ceremony added more memorial bricks to the walkway in front of the center.
Hackney, who recently wrote a book titled “Ambush,” which captures his experience in Vietnam and his life after, reflected on the war and the stigma veterans came home to following the unpopular war.
While that attitude has begun to change, Hackney said many have been viewed negatively for their participation in the war, and many who served don’t discuss their experience.
“They were cursed out and called names simply because you live up to your obligation to wear the uniform,” Hackney said, adding he wished the turn of public opinion came from those who protested having a change of heart or “better yet, a mild-to-severe case of guilt.”
“But a bulk of the credit goes to we veterans and our families and friends. I think that we have worked through those stigmas and misjudgments and proven that we are indeed worthy of, if not the praise and admiration lauded upon our fathers and grandfathers, at least positive recognition,” he said.
He shared memories of each of the three classmates killed in action between 1967 and 1969, saying the men, who grew up in Brookside, all ended up in a similar area of Vietnam.
Hayden, killed Aug. 16, 1967, was in the U.S. Navy, serving as a Seabee in construction.
“Jon lived in the neighborhood, and while not close friends, I certainly remember seeing him often, with his wavy hair and that great smile and friendly personality,” Hackney said.
Ripanti, killed March 14, 1968, served as team leader for a long-range reconnaissance patrol and as a first lieutenant in the special forces.
“According to a friend of his in basic training ... Jim was happy to go and wore a smile after signing up,” Hackney said. “He also described his new friend as easy to get along with and ‘that Jim had impacted my being during basic training.’”
Geissinger, who served as class president for the Class of 1965, was killed July 11, 1969. Geissinger served as a private first class in the infantry.
“Alan was always a leader at school and on the playground,” Hackney said.
As part of the ceremony, there was a reading of “This Was the A Shau,” a poem written by Geissinger after 37 days in Vietnam. His brother, Eric Geissinger, performed it as a song.
Hackney said he admired the sense of calm that Geissinger articulated through the poem, penned while he was on guard duty one night.
“It is very important to realize that we are now in the 52nd, 51st and 50th years of our three classmates deaths while in service to our country,” Hackney said. “Fifty years. Five decades. We have thus far lived two and a half times as long as they did. We have spouses, children and grandchildren, even some great grandchildren, where their families have only their memory to cherish ... Imagine what they could have accomplished.”