Bardstown native served, suffered loss in Vietnam War.
Don Parrish has always been able to talk about his Vietnam experiences. Not that it isn’t difficult. His losses — and they were great — affect him more and more as the years pass. Emotions rise more readily to the surface.
“As time moves on, my emotions get worse,” said Parrish, who deployed to Vietnam in October 1968 with “C” Battery of the Kentucky Army National Guard, an artillery unit of men from Bardstown and the surrounding area.
“We went to Washington last fall to help our daughter and her husband move into a new apartment. While we were there, we went to the wall,” he said, his voice breaking as he remembered visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
“It was tough. I’ve been there many times, and the crazy thing about it is that it gets tougher every time.”
Parrish, a member of KET’s Friends Board, a volunteer organization that promotes KET in counties statewide, was born and raised in Bardstown, where he still lives. He operated his family business manufacturing concrete blocks for many years, and later opened a bookstore he and his wife, Judy, operated for nearly two decades.
Parrish’s National Guard battery was “infused” with soldiers from New Hampshire. Infusion was a military policy designed to prevent too many men from the same hometown from dying in a single incident from the same unit.
In Bardstown’s case, however, the policy wasn’t enough to thwart fate.
During their training and tour, the soldiers from Nelson County worked together as seamlessly as perhaps only men who had once been boys together can. In fact, the unit not only contained boyhood friends, but seven sets of brothers and many cousins as well.
“We were declared to be the top firing battery in all of Southeast Asia because we were so effective and efficient,” he said with pride. “Why? Because we went to school together and we knew each other. So when it came time to do our job, we did it well.”
An attack by the Viet Cong on a rainy night at the difficult-to-defend Firebase Tomahawk, however, was too much for even the best of the best. In that summer of 1969, four Bardstown boys were killed plus another, from “A” Battery of nearby Carrollton.
The story of that loss, one of the worst suffered from any town during the war, has brought news outlets, television documentarians, and authors to Parrish’s door, and he has been interviewed by CNN, CBS Sunday Morning, and more about the fatal attack. He also shares his experience with KET in Kentucky Veterans of the Vietnam War: In their Own Words.
“There are a lot of guys who don’t talk about it — except to me,” said Parrish, who returned to Vietnam and Firebase Tomahawk in 1995, accompanied by other vets and WHAS-TV, which produced a program on the trip.
“War is really difficult to win when you are on the enemy’s turf. That war could have been won had restraints been removed,” he said.
“In fact, it is said by many, and I agree with them, that the war was won — because its purpose was to stop the spread of communism among the Far Eastern nations. And to that end, we won the war.”
When Parrish talks about Vietnam, he also remembers the good times, the camaraderie, and fond memories, like the two guys from Bloomfield, Ky., who raced one another with 95-pound Howitzer rounds in each hand.
He has photographs, now fading, of the people he met — like the Catholic priest who still served at the same church when Parrish returned in 1995. The stray dogs they adopted. The bunkers where they slept at night. These memories became a part of who he is.
“I’m proud of my service,” Parrish reflected. “I think we did well, and I’m sorry to lose friends, but that’s a part of war — a terrible part of war.”