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Inside NASCAR: Veterans honored on No. 39 share their stories of service

November 11, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

The No. 39 Chevrolet sponsored by the U.S. Army will feature more than 350 photos of Vietnam veterans at Phoenix.

Vietnam veterans honored on No. 39 at Phoenix share their stories of service

As owner of Furniture Row Racing and the No. 78 Chevrolet it fields in the Sprint Cup Series, Barney Visser knows where his fiercest loyalty lays heading into this race weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.

But he also admits that he's fully expecting to experience some mixed feelings during this Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at PIR. Although he owns the No. 78 driven by Regan Smith, Visser's photograph will be among the more than 350 photos of Vietnam veterans adorning the No. 39 Chevrolet sponsored by the U.S. Army that will be driven by Ryan Newman.

"It will be a sincere privilege and inspiration for our race team ..."

--RYAN NEWMAN

"We certainly still hope we blow right past him," Visser said. "But this is kind of different. I'll have to go over and see [the No. 39 car] before the race."

As a Veterans Day tribute, the U.S. Army racing cars of Newman in NASCAR and of Tony Schumacher in the NHRA drag-racing series will sport the special paint schemes in honor of the veterans who served during the Vietnam conflict that began 50 years ago.

"What a cool way for us to say thank you and honor the Vietnam veterans," Newman said. "History tells us that many who served in Southeast Asia were not properly recognized upon their return [to the United States]. It will be a sincere privilege and inspiration for our race team to have the Army Strong Vietnam soldiers ride along with me in the Phoenix race."

Here are the stories of Visser and others whose photos will be on Newman's car.

* NASCAR Nation invites you to honor U.S. veterans with your photo and video tributes

Chopper madness

Visser couldn't believe what he thought was his poor luck upon landing in Vietnam virtually straight out of his Colorado high school, and he recalls what was going through his mind every time he stares at the photograph that will be part of the display on Newman's car Sunday.

"I didn't have a lot of pictures from Vietnam. I've got a few, but that was the only real clear one I had," said Visser, now 62. "When I arrived in Vietnam, they set me in front of this reception area and took my picture and sent it to my parents. So that's what's on the car.

"I had just gotten assigned to the 173rd [Airborne Brigade] -- and it was the one unit I did not want to go to. I didn't want to be there."

His reasoning was simple, and totally understandable.

"In 1967, the infantry units in the 173rd had casualty rates of upwards 90 percent. And we all knew it when we got there," Visser said. "We all wanted to get that Screamin' Eagle patch on your shoulder and go to the 101st [Airborne division]. But the 173rd was a reactionary force, and had a casualty rate that was just astronomical for its infantry units.

"But I had two MOS's [military occupational specialties]. I was infantry and a parachute rigger."

Visser during the Vietnam conflict.

"Every time they got up to move, somebody got killed -- and they were out of food. So this helicopter landed and they said, 'We want a volunteer. You.'"

--BARNEY VISSER

He soon learned that his second MOS was about to pay off in a big, lucky way.

"We got there and after a week of jungle school, we found out we were going to be parachute riggers," Visser said. "We were the only parachute-rigger unit in Vietnam. We were just very fortunate. We had a great job compared to the other guys. ... There were about 40 of us, and it was a job you wanted to have there. There was all kinds of chaos going on around us, and we were kind of insulated from it. We felt very, very fortunate."

That's not to say he didn't see some action. In between packing parachutes for others, he frequently had to hop on helicopters to help deliver supplies to units in the field. He remembers one such trip in particular.

"Once I had a helicopter pick me up on what we called a hook pad," Visser said. "There was a company that had been out in the field for three days. Every time they got up to move, somebody got killed -- and they were out of food. So this helicopter landed and they said, 'We want a volunteer. You.' "

At 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds, the guys in the helicopter thought Visser had the perfect physical build for the job.

"They picked the biggest guy and we fly out there, and they said, 'When we get over the drop zone, we'll give you the signal and you throw all these C rations outta here.' I don't remember how many cases it was, but we got over the drop zone and they gave me the thumbs up and I started throwing all these C rations out," Visser said. "Then the pilots lost control of the helicopter or something, because it swung up like it was in a cradle. And I almost fell out. I was the only guy in the chopper who wasn't strapped in.

"But they got control of it and we flew outta there and back to the hook pad. We had re-supplied those guys -- but the pilots got out and looked at (the helicopter) and found out we were shot full of holes. And then they just hopped back in it and flew off. Those guys were nuts. Those helicopter pilots really went through it over there."

Visser served 21 months in Vietnam, between July 1968 and June 1969. Then he returned home and enrolled in Northern Colorado, a Division II school where he says he played football "to forget" what had happened during his Army stint overseas.

"And I didn't have as much to forget as a lot of a other people, so I was very fortunate," he said.

He did have another unusual incident that made him think.

"I had a friend -- and I didn't really know the kid well -- but he was from Greeley, [Colo.] And he said, 'Visser, I hear you're going back to Colorado. Would you look up my Mom and tell her I'm OK?' He said he had been there for three months and hadn't written her a letter. I said, 'Well, write your Mom a letter. ...'

"But I took his name down. And he says, 'Oh, by the way, she works there in Greeley in a cafeteria.' So my first day through the cafeteria in the dorm that I was in, I'm walking through the line and I say, 'Oh, is there a Mrs. Tremble back there?' And they say, 'Oh, yeah, she's right there.'

"So I'm only back four days and I'm there talking to this kid's Mom. And I had no intention of looking her up. I found out later she was a woman of prayer. I don't know why those things happen, but she about passed out when I said, 'Mrs. Tremble, your son is fine. I just left him in Vietnam. He's working in the mess hall, doing just what you're doing.' "

Visser said his transition back to civilian life wasn't difficult, that the cab driver who took him home from the airport upon his return even refused to accept payment. But he knew other veterans who weren't treated so well upon their return, and is pleased that all will be honored this Veterans Day weekend on Newman's car. He also said he hopes it's not the last such deal he sees honoring vets in NASCAR.

"I hope they do something, too, for the veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq," Visser said. "Those guys are really going through it, doing three and four tours."

No thanks, sir

Tony Cable, now 67, served in the 3/39th Infantry unit attached to the Ninth Infantry Division that was based near the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. It was not a nice place.

"When I first went over there I was a regular rifleman in the infantry, then I became a radio man and eventually I became an active squad leader," said Cable, who now works as a NASCAR official. "Other members of our squad and platoon got hurt and it got whittled on down -- so I was a radio operator for biggest part of the time I was there, and then in the latter stages I was a squad leader."

Cable, who twice suffered wounds from hand grenade explosions, earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze star and an Army commendation medal for valor during his tour.

"My injuries came off hand grenades both times, off booby-traps," Cable said. "The first time I was wounded in like six places -- in the arms, hand and in the leg in three places. It really wasn't that serious, though, as far as those times were concerned. The second time, though, I lost a toe on my left foot and suffered more serious injuries.

Cable during the Vietnam conflict.

"The first time I was wounded in like six places -- in the arms, hand and in the leg in three places. It really wasn't that serious, though, as far as those times were concerned."

--TONY CABLE

"I was in the hospital over there for two months after that one. They thought about sending me to Germany at one point, but decided I was going to be OK. Then when I got out of the hospital, my transfer came through and I took it with a rear-echelon unit."

But not before he held an interesting conversation with his company commander.

"When my transfer came through, I was acting squad leader and my company commander called me in," Cable said. "Normally a squad leader was an E-6 [specialist], which was a staff sergeant. I was only an E-5 at the time, but I was holding the position of an E-6. So the commander called me in and said, 'I'm holding transfer orders for you to go to the Ninth Infantry Division headquarters, but I also have an allocation to promote you to an E-6 and keep you in on-line duty. If you stay in on-line duty, I'll give you the promotion. But if you take the transfer, I'll have to use the allocation on someone else.' "

"And it was kind of funny and pretty cool, because then he said, 'As your friend, I advise you to take the transfer; but as your company commander, I'm asking to take the promotion and stay with the on-line duty.' I said, 'Sir, there's no choice. I'm taking the transfer. So I remained an E-5.'

Cable said he wasn't aware that so many Americans were protesting the war until right before he prepared to come home at the end of his two-year tour in Vietnam.

"During the time we were over there, we really didn't know what was going on back home as far as the protests and everything," Cable said. "Then right before we came back, they gave us a debriefing and they told us that, you know, it might not be what we expect when we got back. ... I still didn't understand what it was going to be like until I actually got back.

"You really didn't know how to take it -- because [the war protesters] had their rights to do what they thought was right, and we had to do what we thought we had to do. But if it wasn't for what we did, they wouldn't be out there protesting -- because they would have had the rights and the freedom to do that. So it kind of kind of washed out either way, and the key was to not take it personal. It was what it was and you couldn't do anything about it. You just had to take it for what it was and not try to let it bother you."

That's why he said he's so pleased about being on Newman's car this weekend. He said he'll have two photos on the hood -- and when Newman's car goes through the pre-race inspection station where he works [determining that the weights and measurements of the car are within the required tolerances], he admitted he expects to do a double-take.

"It does mean a lot. It's a special deal -- because really, when we came back it was kind of a bad deal with all the protests going on over the war and everything," he said. "It really felt like we didn't know whether we did the right thing or not -- but over the years, as time progressed, people have come to appreciate the Vietnam vet more and more.

"Some of the guys I work with already have said they want a picture of me with the car. ... It's really a cool-looking car. It's an honor to be a part of it. You feel like you're helping honor all Vietnam vets. It's a pretty cool deal and I'm proud to do it."

He said it is helping score some long-overdue recognition for Vietnam veterans.

"It means a lot that people finally seem to appreciate what we did and what we went through. I know it was an unpopular war and all that, but that's something where you're young and you're asked or more or less told to do something and you just did it," Cable said. "I guess we had the choice of going to Canada or doing what you thought you had to do, and I respect all of those who had the courage to go into a combat environment to fight for our freedom no matter what the popular belief might have been amongst others at the time."

The SHR boys

Joe DiMillo now works for Stewart-Haas Racing, but there was a time when he worked on vehicles and helicopters for the U.S. Army with such efficiency that he received a Bronze Star and an Army medal of commendation for doing such a great job of it.

"When I got over there in-country there, they assigned me to an aviation battalion," DiMillo said. "I was with the First Infantry Division, the Big Red One, and I was in maintenance as far taking care of the road vehicles and things like that. Then they assigned me to an aviation battalion, and I about flipped out because I didn't know nothin' about helicopters.

"But I got there and was there about a month, and the motor pool was in disarray. They had 15 or 20 vehicles that wouldn't run or anything. They just didn't a fleet of vehicles to help take care of the helicopters and stuff. So they asked me to take over the motor pool. I was an E-4 at the time. I said, 'Yes, of course,' and they gave me a field promotion right then and there to Specialist E-5. It took a whole year, but we built the motor pool back up up. I had three Spec-4s working for me, and we got all the vehicles running and had a motor pool and eventually had a headquarters company come over to A Company, which was the company I was in, to ask for parts and stuff like that, because I was building up our supplies [inventory]. I built a dispatch office and got it all really, really organized. Basically I was supporting the whole battalion, the other B and C companies and the headquarters company."

 DiMillo during the Vietnam conflict.

"I volunteered to go up because I wanted to. I thought it was something I needed to do. But I had a good tour. I was one of the lucky ones."

--JOE DiMILLO

The commendation came after Gen. William Westmoreland, commanding general of all Vietnam forces, came down and took a closer look at his operation. As with virtually everyone else in Vietnam, though, DiMillo had more than one job.

"When I was over in 'Nam, my motor officer flew the choppers. Our choppers were the support choppers for Westmoreland," DiMillo said. "And every time Westmoreland went up, our job was to fly support for him with gunships and everything. I got to fly about six months out of the year as a door gunner. It was interesting. I didn't see much of the combat or anything. You might say I lucked out.

"I volunteered to go up because I wanted to. I thought it was something I needed to do. But I had a good tour. I was one of the lucky ones. Of course we all had to pull a lot of guard duty and that was scary and all that. But all in all, I was lucky."

Like so many others who were excellent at their jobs in war, his commanding officer attempted to have him stick around at the end of his two-year tour. He politely declined.

"They wanted to give me another promotion to E-6, if I would say another year in Vietnam. It just didn't feel right. I said, 'No, I think I've had enough.' So for the last year [of his three-year enlistment], I came home," DiMillo said.

"I was 23 years old when that all happened. I wanted to come home and see my parents, and get married one day and all that good stuff. I was one of the lucky ones. I had some buddies that didn't make it -- and it hit home, I guess you could say."

Retired after 33 years of working at General Motors, the grandfather of three has been working at SHR since the team was formed in 2008.

"I'm in maintenance," DiMillo said. "I take care of the building. If they need a light bulb changed, I change it. I just do general maintenance, whatever they need. I help take care of the haulers and push cars around and just whatever."

In the last week, that included occasionally pushing around the Newman car that now his photo and that of SHR co-worker Ray "Shorty" Beauchesne, another Vietnam veteran who could not be interviewed for this story because cancer has robbed him of much of his voice. DiMillo said their photos have been turning heads in the SHR shop.

"I'm just on top of the world, to see it," said DiMillo, now 67. "Everybody in the shop couldn't believe that was a picture of me on the car. I said, 'Hey, I was 23 years old and had a 28-inch waist back then.' But it's an honor, believe me. To be on the car and to be able to represent our country, it means a lot to a lot of people. I think it's about the highest point in my life, just to be here to see it and understand what it represents and everything."

DiMillo will be surrounded by familiar faces on Newman's car this weekend. In addition to Beauchesne's photo on the right side of the car, right above DiMillo on the hood will be a photo of DiMillo's brother-in-law who is a retired Army colonel. He said the car represents recognition that escaped too many of them upon their return home so many years ago.

"It was a different time in life. It wasn't like World War I and World War II ... Everybody just pitched in then because it was something they had to do," DiMillo said.

"In our world, I could understand to some degree where some of the [war protesters] were coming from. Sometimes it takes some people longer to realize, 'Hey, this is why we were there. And that's the reason we have freedom of speech and everything else we've got in this country.' We have that stuff because of people who gave their lives to make sure our kids and our grandkids would continue to have those freedoms in the United States. I'm very proud of that."

DiMillo paused, and then added again: "I'm on top of the world. This just means so much to me."

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