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Tom Richards: 'When I finished ... I was better for it'

Emily Hunt/WXXI
Tom Richards enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from college in 1965. After serving on a large ship for a couple of years, he volunteered to be part of the swift boat program.

Tom Richards had to make a decision after graduating from college.

It was 1965, and the Vietnam War was being fought. He could have applied for graduate school. But he instead chose to enlist in the Navy.

The former Rochester mayor’s interest in military service was inspired by his father, who served with the Army Air Forces during World War II. After going through training, Richards was assigned to a ship, the USS Eldorado, working out of Subic Bay in the Philippines.

After some time, though, Richards said he became bored and was looking for a little more adventure. So he volunteered for the swift boat program, a Navy program that patrolled the coast and riverways of Vietnam.

“I was young, you know, and I saw some adventure in the whole thing. ... It was a very exciting thing, and I was, when I finished that, I was better for it.”

Richards, 24 at the time, spent his time patrolling parts of Vietnam’s coast with a crew of five. His crew’s job was to stop the supply of arms along the coast. Those patrols often caused conflict, with gunfire directed at the crew.

“There was certainly combat,” he said. “But I don't want to overplay that part of it. I think, you know, in comparison to people who served on the ground and the Army and Marines.”

After serving a year on the swift boat, Richards ended his service in the Navy in 1969 and returned to the United States. Richards said that he was fortunate to have his life quickly move on after the war, starting with him getting married that summer.

In the fall, Richards started studying at Cornell Law School. There, Richards saw a number of anti-Vietnam War protests, but he tried not to get caught up in the politics of the time because he wanted to create a new life for himself.

“I didn't want to make my Vietnam experience the defining thing about me,” Richards said.

Richards later would get involved with the Veterans Outreach Center.

“When I got back here to town, I began to meet some people who were involved in the Veterans Outreach Center,” Richards said. “It was an interesting combination of people, if you think about it. Some of them were very military and very committed to the military and all of those kinds of things, and the government, they couldn't stand them. So the VOC really got formed as a reaction to that and the inadequacies to the Veterans Administration at the time.”

Credit Emily Hunt/WXXI
Tom Richards holds a photograph of a swift boat; he served on one during the Vietnam War. "I was young, you know, and I saw some adventure in the whole thing," he said.

Richards said that through the center, he met veterans who were not able to put the war behind them.

“They say, you know, the military makes men, and it does. I mean, it's a dangerous way to do it because it all could break people. If you have a bad experience, it could break people.”