He was always very patriotic, always very true to his country. He was glad that he served.Debbie Wilson, daughter of Navy veteran Stan Standefer
RINCON — A river constantly runs through Debbie Wilson’s mind.
Unfortunately, the scene isn’t as serene as it sounds. Wilson’s mental river is fraught with danger for her father, Vietnam War veteran Stan Standefer.
Standefer, who died in February at the age of 75, served on a small rigid-hulled vessel called a patrol boat. The Navy used them to stop and search river traffic for weapons in areas such as the Mekong Delta, the Rung Sat Special Zone and the Saigon River.
“They didn’t have any protection because they were in the open,” Wilson said. “He told me about a couple times that it got pretty bad.”
A Navy volunteer, Standefer endured three Vietnam stints, achieving the rank of E-7. He received an honorable discharge in 1984 after 22 years of service.
“He was always very patriotic, always very true to his country,” Wilson said. “He was glad that he served. In the hospital (near the end of his life), he said, ‘I’d do it again if I had to.”
Standefer’s devotion to his country rubbed off on his daughter. Every day is Memorial Day as far as she is concerned.
“I am very patriotic and two of my boys are Marines,” Wilson said proudly. “There is no doubt that he had an impact on our lives. My dad was very proud of them and he let them know.”
Wilson also developed another trait because of her father — thick skin.
“You had to have thick skin to be around him,” she said. “He loved to tell jokes and pick at people a little bit.”
Standefer was no bully, however. His soft side was fully exposed at the base of the Vietnam War Memorial during an Honor Flight Savannah trip to Washington, D.C., late last summer. He grieved openly for his fallen friends.
“It gave him some closure,” Wilson said. “I’m really glad about that. There are several guys he served with whose names are on that wall.
“There is one in particular — if he had not taken by dad’s spot so that he could have some leave — my dad’s name would have been on that wall.”
Previously, Standefer visited the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. Wilson thinks that event about a decade ago was the impetus for him to see the real one in Washington, D.C.
“He finally got to see it in its full glory,” Wilson said
Standefer’s interest in a Washington trip was also prodded by one Wilson took with some of her family members. She snapped photos of the names of her father’s fallen friends and showed them to him.
“I think that was another little nudge,” Wilson said. “He really wanted to do it.”
Joining the Navy is also something Standefer strongly wanted to do. He was 19 when he deployed to Vietnam the first time.
“The reason I volunteered is because I didn’t have anything going on in my life that was exciting,” he said after returning from his Savannah Honor Flight Trip. “I thought, ‘If I go, maybe somebody else won’t have to go, somebody that had a family, somebody that had children or maybe some married guy.”
Wilson said her father kept most of his war stories to himself, especially the gory ones.
“He wanted to protect me from how bad it was,” she said. “It was something that he kind of pushed down for awhile. After he got back in touch with some of the guys from the boat and all, it was a release for him to be able to talk about his experiences — good and bad.”
Like many Vietnam War veterans, Standefer waited for decades to be honored for his service. The conflict he participated in generated nationwide protests and mistreatment of U.S. military personnel at home.
Standefer remembered being called “baby killer” by a family member. He retaliated in anger, striking the accuser in the face.
The incident caused a 30-year rift that wasn’t resolved until shortly before Standefer’s death.
“He told me that he wasn’t proud of everything he did but, ‘It was my job. I had to do it,’” Wilson explained.
The pain of losing her father hasn’t subsided. Her eyes moistened while discussing her first Memorial Day without him.
“For him, Memorial Day was always a time to reflect on those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom,” she said. “That’s pretty much how I feel. Of course, we have fun, have cookouts and go to the beach but there is always that thought, ‘If they hadn’t done what they did, I wouldn’t be able to do this.’”
Wilson encourages all Vietnam War veterans to take a Savannah Honor Flight trip. The stops include the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial, the U.S. Navy Museum & Memorial, the U.S. Air Force Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Women in Military Service to America Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery.
“I think it helped him,” she said.
To learn more about Savannah Honor Flight and/or its next trip, visit www.honorflightsavannah.org or call Jerry Maennche at (912) 663-0322.