CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
Robert J. Roswell
Vietnam War Oral History Interview
US Air Force, Combat Security Police
Date: July 21, 2010
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Josh Gilbert
Robert J. Roswell was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the eldest of five children. As a child his family moved frequently, eventually settling in Shamung Township, New Jersey. Roswell attended Lenape High School where he was on the wrestling and football teams and, prior to graduation, enlisted in the Air Force due to the patriotism instilled by his family, and a belief that it was his duty to serve in the military.
On July 6, 1967 Roswell was sent to Lakeland Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas for basic training. Upon completion of boot camp, he was transferred to Edwards Air Force base in California, where he was assigned to the 6510th Air Police Squadron, and his duties included guarding U-2 and SR-71 spy planes. While at Edwards AFB, Roswell and his friend Henry Milligan volunteered to go to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for advanced training.
At Schofield Roswell was trained in small unit combat tactics for 35 days as part of an Air Force program to better prepare its Air Police for potential actual combat, since the Vietnam War was a guerrilla conflict with no real front line, and the army would not always be available for base protection. Roswell, now officially an Air Force Security Policeman, departed from Schofield to Vietnam, where he was assigned to 82nd Combat Security Police Wing’s 821st Combat Security Police Squadron, stationed at Phan Rang.
Roswell was part of a rapid deployment unit that was responsible for “beefing up” security at bases that were under attack or expecting an attack. Upon arrival at Phan Rang, he was told that the base had never been attacked. Within the first few days after his arrival, however, Phan Rang came under rocket and mortar attacks. During his tour in Vietnam, which extended from 1968 to 1969, Roswell was stationed at a number of air bases for periods of time, including Phan Rang, Tan Son Nhut, Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay. His unit’s duties included providing security for aircraft and troops and occasional search and destroy patrols outside base perimeters. Roswell’s most vivid memories of Vietnam were of the people, especially the children, who in small towns and villages would ask for candy from American soldiers.
Roswell recalled that the hardest thing about his Vietnam service was coming home. He arrived in San Francisco in 1968, and described it as “the worst place for returning soldiers.” He mentioned that World War II veterans were honored in parades, but that there was none of that for returning Vietnam veterans. No one cared or said anything derogatory to him, but he stated that he can still remember the “looks” he received. After his return from overseas, he was sent to Forbes Air Force Base in Kansas, but was almost immediately transferred to Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico for more advanced infantry type training, with the expectation of returning to Vietnam. Some men from his old unit did go back, but he stayed in New Mexico, stationed with the 49th Security Police Squadron of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing.
While in New Mexico Roswell reenlisted, and asked to be stationed in New Jersey, New York, or Delaware. He spent the next three years in Dover, Delaware as a member of the 436th Security Police Wing and was granted an early release from service in May 1974. While in the Air Force, Roswell reached the rank of Staff Sergeant E-5 and was awarded the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam campaign Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal.
On reentering the civilian world, Roswell was determined to put the war behind him, in the belief that it was the best way to deal with what he had experienced. He told the interviewer that “if you dwell on something long enough, it will destroy you,” and that he had accomplished what he had set out to do, adding that he was able to live a very happy and successful life outside of the military.
Since childhood Roswell dreamed of being a civilian police officer and, in 1974, he joined the Dover, Delaware Police Department, from which he retired as a lieutenant in 1994. From there he moved to Lancaster, PA, where he served as police chief, until his wife became ill and they returned to Dover. He then took a job as The Dean of Discipline/Security Specialist for the local high school, where he used his experience as a veteran and police officer to teach life lessons to troubled teens.
Roswell used his GI Bill in order to buy a home and also go to college, becoming the first person in his family to attend college, earning an Associate’s degree in Police Science and a Bachelor’s degree in Police Administration.
In 2002 Roswell was diagnosed with prostate cancer which was discovered during a yearly police department physical. His doctor determined that the cancer was a result of his contact with Agent Orange. At first Roswell was reluctant to put in a claim with the Veterans’ Administration, but a friend convinced him to do so, and he was granted a 30% disability pension.
Today Robert Roswell lives in Dover, Delaware. He has belonged to the American Legion since the 1970’s and is a life member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Since he is now retired, he would like to become part of the Honor Guard and attend funerals and participate in holiday memorials. He and his wife raised two children, and his son is a veteran of the Iraq War. Roswell believes that people today appreciate soldiers more than they did in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s. He was very moved by the reception that his son’s unit received when they arrived back home. Roswell said he still feels that more can be done, and stated that he believes that there is a lack of coverage and respect for soldiers in the news media.