KENNEWICK -- It's been decades since Albert Allen, 63, last stood in the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam. But the stories of how the men he served with died and were injured still are fresh in the Kennewick man's memory.
Which is why Allen -- who earned four Bronze Stars for valor -- put up his own Vietnam memorial this year.
Allen began working on the memorial -- an American flag atop a tall pole. Attached to the pole is a plaque engraved with the names and date of death of the men he served with who were killed in action in Vietnam. It also carries the names and dates of death of five of his Army buddies who died later.
He began working on the memorial shortly after one of the men he served with, Capt. Richard Stewart of Columbus, Ga., died in September.
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"This idea has been a voice in my head for a long time. It was just time to do it," Allen said.
Allen was 19, living in Waitsburg, when he volunteered for the draft. Just months later he was heading for combat. That was in 1969.
Allen served in Charlie Company 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 5th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division in an area between Saigon and the Cambodian border.
"I spent a year in Vietnam. I celebrated my 20th birthday with a gun in my hand," he said.
At the end of the year, when he was discharged from the Army, Allen had been promoted to staff sergeant and named squad leader. He was track commander of an armored personnel carrier.
"I met some great people there. I'm not sorry I went at all," Allen said.
Looking at a list of the names on the plaque, he said, "they're all good people; they all have a story."
"That's a lot to carry with you," said his wife, Tammy. "Ask him about the day we married and Albert has to stop and think. Ask him about one of those men and he can tell their story without hesitation."
After he was discharged, Allen said he lost contact with his Army buddies. But Capt. Stewart, who lost his legs in Vietnam, kept in touch with many who served in Charlie Company. It was at one of the battalion reunions that Stewart met Ed Eaton, a Vietnam veteran from Milton-Freewater. He also served in Vietnam in 1969, but wasn't part of Charlie Company.
"We small town Eastern Washington guys have to stick together. When Eaton heard Stewart was looking for someone he served with who lived in Waitsburg, and he kept digging and digging until he found me," Allen said. "That was in 1995."
In 1996, Allen's family all chipped in and bought him a plane ticket go to Atlanta to meet with Stewart. While there he and Stewart drove up to Washington, D.C., and met with several other Army buddies.
"We reconnected and have become extremely close over the years. When we first began calling each other we'd pick up the phone every two or three months. Now it's two, three, four times a week," Allen said.
"Stewart was the one who kept in touch with everyone and went to all the reunions. He was our glue," Allen said, pointing at a photo taken in 2009 of Stewart and their buddies from Charlie Company at the veteran's memorial in Washington, D.C.
Since the photo was taken, Stewart and four other men they served with have died.
When Allen began his memorial project, he thought it would come together easily.
"I was surprised how hard it was hard to find a flagpole. Everything I looked at was too flimsy. I finally found one on eBay for under $500," he said.
His son, Chance Allen of West Richland, designed the plaque and found a place to have it engraved. Two friends, John Foster of Kennewick, and Carlos Susilia of Finley, helped erect the flagpole and wire a light to illuminate the flag.
Even an acquaintance, Bruce Ratchford, owner of Apollo Sheet Metal in Kennewick, contributed.
"He happened to be walking by, saw what I was doing and asked if I needed anything. I said yes, a piece of quarter-inch stainless steel, 14-inches by 18-inches, to mount the plaque on," Allen said. "He walked away and a few minutes later he was back with the steel."
In all, Allen figures he has almost $1,000 into the memorial. But says the memories of the soldiers he served with "are priceless."
SALUTE TO VETERANS
The Herald is seeking photos of veterans for our 2012 Veterans Day special section, which publishes Nov. 11.
Submit your photo and information online at http://bit.ly/veteran section or come in to the Herald office at 333 W. Canal Drive, Kennewick, to have the photo scanned in by our staff from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays.
Submit one photo per veteran and include no more than 100 words about the person. Deadline is Oct. 31.
Include the veteran's name, rank, branch of military and connection to the Tri-Cities. Information mailed or dropped off at the Herald must be typewritten.
Also, please include your name and address, phone number and the veteran's name on the back of the photo to ensure its return.