Interview of Rick Stoughton by Katie Molpus
April 4, 2017
When asked about his decorated service in Vietnam, Mr. Richard Stoughton, a retired Air Force Captain, responds humbly. “It wasn’t heroic by any means,” he answers in a matter of fact tone. The particular incident that Mr. Rick is referring to is when he, along with three other pilots, stepped in to assist troops on the ground under attack. Although he would never admit it, this action helped save the lives of many grateful troops and earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross, one of several medals Mr. Rick earned. In that moment and throughout his five years of military service, he served bravely and maintained this positive, humble attitude, despite the difficulties of combat.
No stranger to travel, Mr. Rick grew up in a military family, often moving from place to place. Between kindergarten and his senior year of high school, he attended twelve different schools. He always enjoyed his time in different environments, especially Germany where he spent his senior year. After his high school graduation, he intended to make the military a career, like his father. Shortly after, Mr. Rick found himself at The Citadel, the first place he lived for more than three years. Freshman year at The Citadel was the hardest, but the experiences had a profound effect on the relationships he made. “They say each class is different, but the same [connection] is there,” Mr. Rick says, “It forms a mold and friendships, a union like no other college has.” This bond connects Citadel students past and present. Anytime he sees a Citadel graduate, Mr. Rick introduces himself and takes the time to chat and reminisce.
To say that June 1, 1968 was a busy day for Mr. Rick would be an understatement. Not only did he graduate from The Citadel that day, but it was also the day that he was commissioned and married his wife, Mary. At 8 a.m., he had his commissioning ceremony. After a short break, he had graduation, and later that evening he was married. About three weeks later, the newlyweds drove cross country to California, where Mr. Rick began navigation school. The two did not stay long in California; they were stationed at the Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for the remainder of his time in the service. After three years at Holloman—with just ten months left in his commitment to the Air Force—Mr. Rick received the news that he would be heading to Vietnam.
Mr. Rick had volunteered to go to Vietnam repeatedly before his wing was mobilized. Despite wanting to serve his country in combat, the gravity of the situation was not lost on him. “I never thought I’d come back; that’s the frame of mind I had,” Mr. Rick explains. “It’s crazy, but that’s what I thought.” He was stationed in Takhli, Thailand at a deactivated base. He describes the conditions at the base as “a little rough for us Air Force guys.” Although the conditions at the base were trying, Mr. Rick’s first mission proved to be an even greater test of endurance. The mission was rained out twice before they were finally able to fly. “I don’t think I slept for three days,” he said. But then adrenaline kicked in, along with training. During the first mission, his squadron was shot at by a surface-to-air missile, but they were able to fly higher and watch the missile fade beneath the aircraft.
From then on, Mr. Rick describes his time with three words: “Eat, Sleep, Fly.” They would fly two missions a day, each mission lasting about two and a half hours. They would find their target, land, refuel, eat, and then repeat the same process once again before returning to their base in Takhli. The days were long, but he remembers them as exciting. In his 95 days in Vietnam, Mr. Rick got around seven days off. On these days, the men would set up a snack bar and catch up on sleep between volleyball games and reading. Although he never got to spend much time in the area, he recalls the spicy food and the markets around the area where he was able to quickly find a new pair of boots.
Even more “exciting” were the Route Six missions that took them over Hanoi, one of the most heavily defended areas at the time. “There was no element of surprise,” Mr. Rick says, “They knew you were coming.” It was during these missions that Mr. Rick had to cross the Red River, allowing him to join the River Rats. The River Rats, started during the Vietnam War, is an organization for fighter pilots, and the group, now known as the Red River Valley Association, has local and national meetings and offers scholarships to the children and spouses of members.
One of the “exciting” missions that Mr. Rick remembers led to his Distinguished Flying Cross. “It was overcast, and we couldn’t see the target,” he remembers. After dropping their altitude to around 8000 feet, ground control contacts them. “They said we’ve got some troops in a bad situation. They marked the target for us.” When they flew closer to assist the ground troops, he could see the friendly troops running across a grassy field. “All of the sudden, it was like somebody stepped on an ant bed,” he said. “They had hundreds of enemies chasing after them.” The pilots were able to drop an ordinance and help the troops escape. “They were happy guys that night,” Mr. Rick says humbly. He then describes the experience of receiving the award, telling me, “You don’t think you did anything special, but I know those guys on the ground: It was special to them.”
Mr. Rick returned home to his wife after three months in Vietnam. “When I was coming back, I didn’t tell her I was coming back,” he says. Attempting to surprise Mary, he called their home in Holloman, but no one answered the phone. At that moment, “I said, ‘She’s gone,’” Mr. Rick remembers, “So I called home, back in Charleston. Who answers the phone? My wife.” The two decided to meet halfway in El Paso, Texas. Shortly after his return, he and his wife moved back to Charleston, where they have lived ever since. “I was quite proud of her,” Mr. Rick says of his wife’s strength while he was away. He attributes this strength to his success after his service. He describes Mary as “the pusher.” He says, “She pushed me all the way.”
Mr. Rick began working at the First Federal Savings and Loan in Charleston, and he came back to The Citadel in 1980 to pursue his MBA. After finishing his MBA, Mr. Rick and Mary had two sons, and he continued his work at the bank until his retirement. As he reflects on his time in the military, he does not at all regret his time spent in the Air Force or in Vietnam, which he describes as “an experience that you had to endure.” Mr. Rick explains that the Air Force “prepares you for situations that you just don’t think about.”
Mr. Rick still meets with the local River Rats organization. “We get together, have a couple of drinks, and shoot the breeze,” he says, “just like fly guys do all over the place.” When asked about what from his time in combat has had the greatest effect on his life, he responds by focusing on the positive results of his sacrifice and the sacrifices of others. “Peace is a wonderful thing,” he says, “Peace is remarkable.” His time in the service showed him firsthand what must be done to preserve that peace, and thankfully he can enjoy some of that peace he helped maintain with his family and friends in Charleston, where his military career began.