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A wall, a veteran and the story of a fallen Vietnam War hero

  • Eleanor Riordan gets pushed in a wheelchair by her daughter, Mary Riordan, as the ceremony begins at The Moving Wall at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday. Photos by GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Eleanor Riordan listens to the remarks at The Moving Wall ceremony at UNH on Thursday. Riordan, 95, lost her son, George, 49 years ago in Vietnam. GEOFF FORESTERMonitor staff

  • Kim Chen wipes down the panels of the Moving Wall in preparation the ceremony at UNH Thursday, May 4, 2017. Chen and her husband Paul travel around the country with the panels for all the ceremonies from April to November on a volunteer basis. Paul Chen is a Vietnam era veteran. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • RIGHT: Post Commander Jeff Gaudet points to the name of his cousin, Thomas W. Gaudet.

  • Post Commander Jeff Gaudet from Plymouth etches the name of his cousin Thomas Gaudet at the The Moving Wall at UNH Thursday, May 4, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Vietnam Moving Wall on the UNH campus Thursday, May 5, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: UNH student James Fahey of Portsmouth touches The Moving Wall.



Monitor columnist
Saturday, May 06, 2017

For Eleanor Riordan, pushed in a wheelchair by her daughter, Mary Riordan, all that mattered was Panel E44, Line 53.

That, Eleanor knew, was where she’d find her son’s name on The Moving Wall, in slightly raised white letters over a shiny black surface. That’s where the 95-year-old mother from Dover knew she’d find George Riordan.

And in the shadow of the wall, Eleanor would tell the story of Don Ritter, the soldier whose life was saved by her son nearly 50 years ago. It was Ritter who survived that day in the fields of Vietnam, and it was her son who was shot and died, draped over Ritter’s body, after fumbling with bandages to tend to his friend’s bullet wound.

But the story – and the connection – didn’t end that day.

Ritter, who lives in Staten Island, sends flowers, two dozen yellow roses, to Eleanor on special occasions, several times a year to this day. To say thank you. Because of George.

“So many of the Marines who were with Georgie keep in touch and visit,” Eleanor told me on Thursday, a clear spring day. “And the young Marine he went out to help has been in touch. He visits us.”

You notice “Georgie.” A mother tends to do that, tends to alter her son’s name, turn back the clock so he’s forever her baby, not a medic with the Marines.

And certainly not one of 58,315 names, the number of Americans killed during the Vietnam War, on a memorial. The wall is a half-sized replica of the official tribute in Washington, D.C. It’s in Durham, at the University of New Hampshire, through Monday.

It’s on tour, a portable, powerful, painful reminder of a war that had endless examples of courage and sacrifice. For years, though, those stories were reserved for other wars, especially World War II.

Those stories were saved for a beach on the coast of France, and an island in the Pacific. Tragically, the perception of Vietnam was different, but not to Eleanor.

She knew the story, all too well. Mary, too. The story of Ritter, who was shot in the back in 1968, fighting for his country. The story of Georgie, who ran to his friend, ran to comfort him, perhaps patch the wound, ignoring his safe surroundings in the tree line.

Georgie was shot that day. He died almost instantly. Ritter survived, became a firefighter in New York City, married, fathered two children, worked at Ground Zero immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.

“Don felt responsible for his death,” said Mary, who was two years younger than her brother. “Don pretended he was dead as George laid on top of him.”

Like that day on March 14, 1968, Georgie and Ritter are together forever, pressed against each other. One can’t be mentioned without the other. They are examples of who we can be, what we can accomplish, why there is hope for the human spirit when the world often times seems to be falling apart.

This is also a rare moment in this business when a story like this one, heroic yet perhaps exaggerated, nearly 50 years old, can be confirmed.

I found a Don Ritter from Staten Island online. I found a phone number. I called the number. It was the Don Ritter who watched Georgie die right on top of him, where the two lay before their buddies could drag them away.

“I was wounded and he came out to give me aid,” Ritter, who’s 69, said in his thick New York accent. “He was a corpsman and he was leaning over me and tending to me to keep me alive and he was killed 10 minutes later. We were lying there for two hours.”

They had known each other for three months. Long enough to build a bond. Long enough to care deeply for one another. Long enough for one of them to risk his life.

Ritter says he told his friend, “Get down, doc, get down,” as Georgie knelt over him, trying to stop the blood.

Ritter never forgot. Time and the pre-internet-age tried to push the scene into his past, but Ritter wouldn’t let it go. He had to reach out to the family.

This family. In essence, his family.

He wrote letters and came up empty. Then, in 1983, 15 years after both men had been shot, Ritter was told of a Riordan family in Dover.

Deleware, Ritter figured.

“I called information and I got a Riordan in New Hampshire and it was her,” Ritter said, referring to Eleanor. “We both started to cry. Then I went there a couple of months later with my wife and oldest son.”

He kept visiting, maybe every other year, maybe every third year. He called Eleanor, told her about his oldest son, Don, a teacher, then his youngest son, Jonathan, a federal police officer.

Eleanor visited Ritter, too, getting a tour of New York City, including the Ground Zero area and museum, the place where Ritter had arrived a few minutes after the second tower fell. He dug through rubble but found no survivors.

Through it all, year after year, Ritter sent two dozen yellow roses to his friend’s mother. Ritter’s wife, Nancy, suggested the color, bright and hopeful.

He sends them on the anniversary of that awful day, March 14. He sends them on Eleanor’s birthday, Sept. 22. He sends them on Mother’s Day.

“The way Don feels is he saved his life,” Eleanor told me. “It’s just so many stories.”

There are always lots of stories at events like this. Like the one about Jerry Greenwood of Charlestown, who hunted for improvised explosive devices in Iraq during two wars, and now works for the Veterans Center, helping guide emotionally troubled veterans to free mental health care.

And Rubel Witol of Meredith and the Combat Warriors Motorcycle Club, who served in Vietnam the same time as Ritter and Georgie did, and who paid his respects Thursday to three childhood friends who had been killed in the war.

And this story. It was easy to spot. A middle-aged woman, in this case Mary, an office manager, pushing an old woman in a wheelchair, hugging the trail tight along the 254-foot wall, with its 74 panels, searching, looking, feeling.

Eleanor looked sharp, in matching caramel-colored sweater, turtleneck and large-stoned necklace. She wore sunglasses and greeted me with humor.

“My eyesight is gone, my hearing is gone, my legs are gone,” she told me. “But I’m fine. I keep going. My heart’s still going.”

She was a pharmacy technician and had seven children. She stayed in Dover all these years. Georgie was her oldest, 19 when he died.

He loved children. Eleanor held a photo of Georgie tending to a wounded little Vietnamese boy, cradled in his mother’s arms, a bandage wrapped around the boy’s leg.

I asked Ritter about the burden he might feel. “You have a guilt, but you try to make life a better life because someone gave their life trying to save me to carry on. That gives you strength and someone to thank for your existence. It’s always there, daily.”

Ritter wonders what might have been. “What would he have been in life? Maybe a doctor or a great surgeon. Maybe a cop. Maybe president of the United States. I had to make peace with myself, and that is why I kept looking for her.”

He found her, and now Eleanor is excited about the two dozen yellow roses she’ll be receiving for Mother’s Day, in seven days. They come every year.

“It never stops,” Eleanor said. “It keeps Georgie alive to know that so many people care about him. It’s just so wonderful.”