Howard Kalachman has earned many honors for his service to the country, but he refused to accept one: the Purple Heart.
Kalachman, of Lynbrook, was on sandbag duty at a U.S. Army base during the Vietnam War when a 200-pound steel plate was blown up like a piece of paper by the wind of a chinook helicopter picking up a damaged vehicle, and struck him in the back and neck, nearly killing him. He didn’t accept the Purple Heart, he said, because his injuries were not sustained in combat. “There’s guys that did a lot more than me, and they deserve the award,” he said.
One honor that Kalachman did accept, however, was the Town of Hempstead Veterans Medal during a Salute to Veterans at Town Park in Point Lookout on June 30. It was just the latest of many honors for his extensive service in local veterans’ organizations.
Kalachman, 74, has served as commander of American Legion Post 972 in Long Beach, and as treasurer of the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 145 in Valley Stream, for which he is now commander. He also volunteers as a veteran mentor at the Nassau County Veterans Treatment Court, and on July 10 he ran two tables at the semi-annual Stand Down for Veterans event in Freeport to aid former soldiers who are now homeless.
“Howard served honorably in Vietnam, and continues to serve his fellow veterans to this day,” Town Supervisor Laura Gillen said in a statement.
“He goes above and beyond,” said Frank Paz, a former commander and the current adjutant of the DAV, who nominated Kalachman for the Veterans Medal. Paz endorsed his friend, he said, because of his work as treasurer and commander of the organization. Kalachman is always willing to volunteer at events, Paz said.
Kalachman also previously received the Legionnaire of the Year Award from American Legion Post 972.
For his service in the Army, he earned a Bronze Star, a Good Conduct Medal, a Vietnam Service Medal and a Vietnam Combat Medal. Kalachman served in Vietnam for 13 1/2 months, in the 1st Cavalry Division, which he described as Gen. William Westmoreland’s “favorite unit.”
“We were in every major battle,” he said.
The 1st Cavalry Division fought in the battle of Khe Sahn, when North Vietnamese forces bombarded U.S. troops. The unit was also involved in the Tet Offensive, when 70,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a series of attacks on towns in South Vietnam from January to September 1968.
Kalachman, though, was not in combat during those battles because of his injuries. Instead, he wrote award citations and next-of-kin letters for those who died in combat. “There were so many [next-of-kin letters] during the Tet Offensive,” he said.
He learned that the 1st Cavalry Division had been hit in the Tet Offensive when he picked up a report from the medical unit and spotted his fellow soldiers in treatment. Kalachman was in such shock that he reported his Jeep stolen, even though he had just left it at the medical unit.
When he returned to the U.S. in 1968, Kalachman said, he did not feel welcome because many soldiers were spit on — figuratively and, at times, literally — by the general public after the My Lai Massacre, during which U.S. forces murdered 400 to 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including children, on March 16, 1968. “I remember waiting on line with my family for a restaurant, and somebody called me a baby killer,” Kalachman said. “I never killed a baby in my life, and that really upset me.”
In response, Kalachman and other Vietnam veterans started telling one another, “Welcome home, brother.” Eventually, he added, many civilians began to say it as well.
Now, he said, veterans are usually treated well upon their return home from service. “We understand that some of the military situations we’re in now may not be in our best interest, but we don’t hold it against the soldier anymore,” Kalachman said. “We are smart enough to hold it against the government.”
It’s vital, he added, to support those risking their lives for the country. “As far as the veterans go, it’s important to thank a vet,” Kalachman said.