North Platte Mayor and President of the Nebraska League of Municipalities, Dwight Livingston, has a place in a book alongside such noted officials as former Secretary of Defense Colin Powell, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, as well as 45 other Vietnam veterans.
The book, by Joseph L. Galloway and Marvin J. Wolf, is entitled, They Were Soldiers: The Sacrifices and Contributions of Our Vietnam Veterans.
The compelling book documents remarkable accounts of the Vietnam generation, a generation of young men and women who demonstrated valor, courage and heroism in combat, followed by decades of servant leadership in communities and the country.
Nearly 3 million young men and women from the United States served in the Vietnam War. Many of their sacrifices have often been documented.
More than 150,000 American service members were wounded. As of May 2019, the names of 58,276 military personnel who were wounded in Vietnam between 1957 and 1975 and ultimately lost their lives are inscribed on the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Unlike soldiers of the “Greatest Generation,” who came home after WWII to a grateful nation with well-deserved parades, accolades and benefits, Vietnam veterans returned to a divided nation, due to the increasingly unpopular war.
Livingston served a year in Nam as a military policeman at the Da Nang Air Base, a primary arrival point for U.S. troops and supplies. Not only did he patrol the base to help maintain order there, he volunteered for some other missions, including medivac rescue missions by helicopter and support visits to troops at the nearby Marble Mountain helicopter base.
Like many other Vietnam troops, Livingston left a wife and one-year-old son at home, and he didn’t know if he would ever see them again.
“When I got back, my son was a motor mouth talking. I missed a year of his life, but I wasn’t real sure I was going to get back,” Livingston said. “I had a guy blown up right next to me. The base got hit with a rocket attack the night before we were going to process out. One rocket hit a fuel dump 300-400 yards from us. I was right next to him, but I wasn’t hurt all that bad for some reason. A Marine in a jeep got me out of that area. I’ll forever be grateful to him. It was ironic; for the 2-3 weeks before, were pretty quiet, but all in all, we got hit a lot. When that happened the night before I left, I thought ‘I’m never going to get out of here,’ but I did. I was fortunate.”
When Livingston returned to the U.S., he ran into a different kind of hostility – the animosity of war protesters at an Air Force base outside of Los Angeles.
“The most miserable time of my life, probably, was when I came back from Vietnam,” Livingston said in a recent interview for the League of Municipalities. “They were throwing rocks, screaming and hollering at us, and calling us baby killers.”
Livingston said after that welcome home harassment, about five GIs jumped into a cab for a 50-mile ride to LA International Airport, where they were supposed to debrief before splitting up to go their separate ways home. There were protestors at LAX too, and it was so disruptive they never really had their debriefing session. Livingston missed his scheduled flight to Kansas City, but thanks to some “very kind” people, he finally caught a flight out around 3-4 a.m.
Things were nearly as bad in Kansas City.
“People were not friendly to men in uniform,” he said. “I did nothing wrong. I did what the Air Force told me to do. I served my country, and I’m still proud of that.”
For years, many Vietnam veterans experienced this level of hostility.
“It was a hard time,” he said. “We not only had to patrol the base for GIs who were getting out of hand, we had to watch out for the Vietcong too. But, I had it a lot better than some of the guys out there,” he said. “But it was really disappointing when we got home and had to face the hostility here.”
Notwithstanding the horrific sights and experiences of combat in Vietnam that haunted Livingston for decades, his service as a military police officer in the Air Force gave him an opportunity near the end of his enlistment to attend a civilian police academy in Colorado Springs in 1972.
Finishing first in his class, he received a number of job offers from police departments, including one from North Platte. He began working as a patrol officer in August 1972, eventually holding every rank from patrol officer to Interim Police Chief, which he held for about four months after declining to apply for the position.
During his police career, he graduated from the FBI National Academy in 1986. Livingston earned his B.S. in Business Administration from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He received numerous awards and commendations over the years and served as President of the Police Officers’ Association of Nebraska (POAN) in 2002-03.
After 38 years of service, he retired from the police department in 2011 and was inducted into the “POAN Hall of Fame” in 2012.
Like Colin Powell and other distinguished Vietnam veterans featured in the book, Livingston is a servant leader. Shortly after retiring from the police force, he was asked by a number of citizens to run for mayor.
In 2012, he defeated the incumbent mayor and decisively won reelection in 2016. He decided not to run for office again in 2020 so he could spend more time with Ronda, his devoted wife of 21 years, to travel and attend activities involving their blended family of five children and nine grandchildren.
As mayor, his most treasured memories include mentoring students, welcoming visitors to North Platte and speaking at ceremonies to thank veterans, law enforcement officers and other first responders for their dedication and sacrifices.
Volunteers met troop trains
Livingston talks about North Platte with a great deal of warmth and pride and cannot understand those who complain about the city.
“They don’t know what they are talking about,” he told the Bulletin.
He is a tireless, authentic ambassador for the community and continues the great tradition of the iconic “Spirit of the Canteen.”
As most residents know, from December 1941 until World War II ended in September 1945, North Platte coordinated the efforts of hundreds of volunteers from essentially every organization, from the Boy Scouts to the quilting clubs.
These volunteers from more than 125 surrounding municipalities took turns greeting every train of soldiers from 5 a.m. to midnight, when the train stopped for 10-15 minutes to get water for the steam engines. Every day the Canteen provided about 3,000-5,000 soldiers with sandwiches, cookies and small gifts. About 6 million soldiers experienced extraordinary appreciation and hospitality as their trains pulled into the North Platte Canteen.
Livingston feels compelled to do the same these days.
In June 2018, volunteers in North Platte again rose to the occasion to host more than 700 service men and women of the Arkansas Army National Guard, who were on their way home after training in Wyoming at Camp Guernsey for three weeks.
Over a period of two days, 21 chartered buses of soldiers stopped in North Platte and were welcomed by loud cheers and countless “Thank you” signs, before being treated at the D&N Event Center (decorated in their honor) to a variety of foods, including steak sandwiches, salads and desserts.
Without a doubt, this hospitality was much appreciated after sleeping in tents and eating MREs for three weeks in Wyoming.
As noted in the book, Livingston was present both days and made it a point to shake hands with every soldier, to thank him or her for their service, never forgetting how he was treated after returning from Vietnam.
(This report was published first in the Bulletin’s Nov. 4 print edition.)