Air Force veteran Ben Lathrop, a former mayor of Norwich who served in the army from 1966 to 1970 and spent part of his second tour at three different bases in Thailand, said he was looking for a way to to honor the 58,220 American men and women who died during the Vietnam War.
“I served admirably and patriotically and I would do it again,” he said in a June phone interview.
Lathrop has created 30,000 laminated flag cards since approximately 2014. They feature a star of a retired American flag on the front and a picture of the flag on the back with this statement:
“I am part of our American flag. I flew over a house in the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and the winds made me become tattered and torn. Please carry me to remind you that you are not forgotten.
Lathrop, 74, still has 28,220 credit-card-sized flag cards to make to reach his goal.
He said he received cantons (rectangular, blue background with 50 stars) from his patriot brother-in-law, Chuck Andrews, and retired flags from American Legion/Veterans of Foreign Wars post drop-off points and of Norwich Town Hall.
“I cut out the stars in their place on the card and laminate them on a regular 9.5 x 11 sheet, then cut out each individual and laminate them again. So it’s quite a process,” he said.
Lathrop holds a ceremony over all the remaining remains and they are burned out of respect. “You can’t leave anything, not even a small thread.”
So far, his flag cards have been distributed locally via the VFWs, American Legions and the Italian La Stella Market in Taftville, and also sent to Afghanistan, as well as to retired army veteran Richard Friedrich in Tampa, Florida, a friend who originally suggested the flag-map approach. Lathrop’s goal now is to manufacture and distribute more cards locally to anyone who wants them.
Friedrich and Vietnam veteran Tom Burke, who are Lathrop’s heroes and mentors, were “an integral part of the process,” he said.
Lathrop also thanks Dr. Cornelio Hong of the New London Veterans Administration Clinic for giving him the courage, stamina and willpower to tackle this project.
“He’s the first doctor I’ve seen there.”
Hong said in a phone interview that he was “very proud” of Lathrop’s perseverance despite his health issues.
“It means a lot to us veterans,” said Hong, who served as a medical officer during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and former VFW National Surgeon General.
“Unless you’re really personally involved in the service, it’s very difficult to understand what most veterans are going through right now. And having worked in the VA, I am able to understand at least emotionally, as well as physically, what most veterans go through. Unfortunately, not all veterans go to the VA clinic or seek help, especially Vietnam veterans. They kind of stay away from everyone,” Hong said.
At VFW Post 594 in Norwich, Air Force veteran Kenneth LaRochelle said he supported Lathrop’s efforts “100 per cent, especially today with all the antics going on and disrespect for the flag. and veterans”.
“We honor our veterans and the sacrifice they made. As they say, “All gave it, but some gave it all,” said LaRochelle, 77, who was stationed at McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Fla., and served from 1961 to 1965.
The flag cards are “a great gesture to remember anyone who has lost their life in the military, especially defending your country,” said Navy veteran Barney Laverty of Norwich (who served on a sub- sailor mainly in the North Atlantic Ocean from 1972 to 1976), at the post VFW.
Since Hong retired, Lathrop has been cared for by advanced practice registered nurse Stephanie Chiappa, whom he described in an email as “an incredibly gifted young woman, so compassionate to everyone’s needs. veterans!”
Some of Lathrop’s health issues were due to Agent Orange, which “was prevalent on every base no matter where you were stationed, mostly in Vietnam, where it was used to defoliate,” he said.
Lathrop recently had carotid artery surgery and had prostate cancer. Additionally, he suffers from neuropathy and high blood pressure, as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from smoking for 35 years.
Depression and anxiety
After being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, due to wartime experiences, Lathrop said the drugs helped him control his depression and anxiety. In the past, he added that he “couldn’t look at a flag or listen to the anthem without shedding a tear. It would get too emotional for me. That’s why this therapy came to fruition with me making these flag cards.
He said that “there are other people out there” who create flag maps or something similar and distribute them. “God bless them.”
Lathrop said the flag card project makes him feel good and hopes “other people will recognize that this is a keepsake” and that the cards “will arrive in good hands.”
Going forward, Lathrop said he would like to teach school children about flag protocols and would welcome inquiries from school representatives.
“There are protocols for the flag whether it is retired or half-mast, saluted or raised or lowered (rise and dusk).”
Also, if the flag is flown at night, there must be a light on it.
Respect the flag
When the flags are tattered or torn, he said “you are supposed to remove them and replace them. It’s out of respect for the flag. It just doesn’t fly. He flies and remembers people who sacrificed their lives. When I see one in tatters, I don’t hesitate. I’m going to talk to someone.
Over the years, Lathrop has volunteered at St. Vincent de Paul and TVCCA Meals on Wheels and “everywhere else” he was needed, he said. Now retired, he works as a staff member at Norwich Golf Course.
“It’s my patriotic passion to think about the people who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. It’s very important to me,” Lathrop said, adding that the average age of servicemen in the Vietnam War was 19. , “all young children”.
Many veterans feel guilty for returning home, he said.
Over 2.7 million Americans served in the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973. Over 150,000 were wounded and 58,220 were killed. At the start of this year, 1,584 were still missing in action, according to the Defense POW/MIA accounting agency, dpaa-mil.sites.crmforce.mil.
Veterans with issues can contact their local VA, Lathrop said. “There is so much help there, whether it’s the VFWs, the Norwich Vet Center or whatever it is in the system. Southeast Connecticut is well represented at the New London VA. It’s a wonderful place. I can’t say enough good things about Stephanie Chiappa’ and the other VA doctors and what they do for veterans.
Veterans can also fill out an application and access “My HealtheVet” by going to myhealth.va.gov, “which is a website I can log into, order my prescriptions, and talk to someone,” a- he declared. “There’s an 800 number if you need help.”
When he hears veterans say they “never applied for their benefits, I help them because they have so much access to so much help”.
Lathrop said he was grateful for his wife, Barbara, whom he describes as his best and closest friend, and his Vietnam Army veteran boyfriend, Bob Burke.
“Remember: heroes don’t wear capes, they wear dog tags,” he said. “God bless America.”
To receive a large quantity of laminated flag cards or ask Lathrop to talk about flag protocols in a school setting, contact Ben Lathrop via email at [email protected]
Long-time Norwich resident Jan Tormay now lives in Westerly.
If you or a loved one is having thoughts of death or suicide, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and press 1, or use other ’emergency. Or you can chat online with a trained counselor at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net,” according to Veteranshealthlibrary.va.gov/142.41555_VA.