Vietnam vet remembers his welcome home party
When Richard Bird walked with his fellow soldiers in Vietnam during the war, he carried a radio, the extent of his soldierly gear and an extra ammunition box full of letters written by fifth-graders from Lincoln Elementary over his back.
The content of these letters may be lost to time, but Bird hasn’t forgotten what it was like to carry those messages with him.
“For one thing, the box was really heavy,” he said, sitting beside his wife Bonnie and with Scrappy, their aptly-named Chihuahua, on his lap. “It was quite difficult trying to respond to those letters in the field, which could be a bit wet — but that’s the price you paid for the little things you wanted over there.”
Bird was drafted and became part of the 1st of the 502nd in the 101st Airborne Division, acting as a forward observer who called out for mortars over the radio. One day during his tour, Bird received a package of 26 letters from a fifth grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Tiffin.
“It was Miss Margaret Goodheart’s idea, it was her class that sent me the letters,” Bird said. “Each of the students said something encouraging to me and something personal about their lives in the letters, and Miss Goodheart invited me to write back to the class if I could.”
The class expected to receive a single letter from Bird at some point, perhaps thanking them for reaching out to him while he was away from home.
Bird sent back 26 individualized letters, written in between marching from place to place and doing reconnaissance, between spikes in radio chatter and static, between one mortar shell and another.
“I would write whenever I could, so it was probably a week or two to write all of them,” he said. “I took a form letter and then I included something unique and personal to each student, so I wrote a letter for each child in that way. Then I sent them all at the same time.”
“It was important to me to write to all of them because it just made you feel good, to receive all those letters,” he said. “Some guys didn’t get letters over there, so I’ve always been very grateful.”
Bird said he was “married” to the radio while he was on his tour, having to be sure not to miss any messages. So one of the things he was able to do to take his mind off of things was to sneak a few letters in when he could find time for a break.
The class continued corresponding with Bird for the rest of his deployment and sent care packages, as Bird called them, boxes of goodies and reminders of home.
Bird returned home from Vietnam after his 13 and a half month-long stint and found transition back into civilian life in America at the time to be a very lonely prospect.
“When I came home the Vietnam War was not a popular thing,” he said. “My family welcomed me home, but the rest of the world could care less, and you didn’t talk about it at the time.
“The friends I’d had before were either also in the service or in college or married, so it was kind of a lonely time for me.”
There were two bright points in those early days back in Ohio, though: getting together with and marrying his wife Bonnie, and getting a special invitation in the mail.
“One day I got an invitation from Miss Goodheart’s class to come to a welcome home party,” he said.
The letter, which Bird still has, starts with “Dear Rich” and is signed with “Your adopted sisters, brothers, teacher and P.B.” Bird never found out exactly who “P.B.” was, but he’s still grateful to all of those involved for their kindness.
On Friday, May 21, 1971, Bird attended his welcome home party in the gymnasium at Lincoln Elementary School. The fifth grade class decorated, performed a tumbling routine in his honor and prepared a presentation along with the giving of a gift – a tie, which Bird has kept since then.
“Richard’s always worn that tie to church, for special occasions and usually around Veterans Day,” Richard’s wife Bonnie said.
“It was almost too much, the party,” Bird said,” because I was very jumpy at the time, just home from Vietnam.
“I didn’t like crowds very much then, but I’m very glad I went and I still think about it today. It was one of the really positive things that happened to me when I came home, and it’s really made my life, in a way.”
Bird thought about going to some of the kids’ graduations but they’d filtered into other schools in other towns by the time they finished high school, he said.
“I often wonder what happened to those kids,” he said, “and I wonder now whether any of them will see this story.”
He did go to Miss Goodheart’s funeral service in 2018, after she had become Mrs. Margaret Murray.
“I brought the article from The Advertiser-Tribune I had about the welcome home party in 1971, and I showed Mrs. Murray’s husband and daughters,” Bird said.
“I felt I should honor her by going to her funeral, because what she did really meant a lot to me. She was just a really nice person, and I believe it’d been her idea to have her class write me those letters.”
Staying in Tiffin and working in various places before retiring from National Machinery after 37 years, through the years Richard and Bonnie would send their kids to Lincoln Elementary School and their son Jason would even have Mrs. Murray as his fifth-grade teacher.
And, decades after returning home from the war, Bird finally decided to retrieve the medals he earned for his service, a process which he only started after no small amount of nudging from his wife and sons.
“When I first got back, they said I had the option of waiting for them or just going right home, and this was a pretty easy decision for me at the time,” he said. “And as I said, I didn’t like to talk about my time in the war for many years, or even think about it if I could help it.”
Bird managed to retrieve his medals and they now sit in a cushioned display case in his bedroom. Very near these medals, Bird also keeps the tie he received, the invitation to the welcome home party and the newspaper clipping that describes the event.
“These are things I don’t ever want to forget,” he said.