Southampton Veteran Recounts Service in Vietnam as a Sentry Dog Handler - 27 East

Southampton Veteran Recounts Service in Vietnam as a Sentry Dog Handler

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Fritz. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Fritz. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi with his sentry dog, Fritz, while serving in Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi with his sentry dog, Fritz, while serving in Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi and his son during a recent visit to Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi and his son during a recent visit to Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi's insignia. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi's insignia. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi during a recent return visit to Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi during a recent return visit to Vietnam. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi in Vietnam, circa 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi in Vietnam, circa 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Sentry dogs and their soldiers. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Sentry dogs and their soldiers. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park.   DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park. DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park.   DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park. DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park.   DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi gives the keynote speech at the Southampton Veterans Day observance on Saturday in Agawam Park. DANA SHAW

Tom Guldi with his sentry dog, Fritz, while serving in Vietnam in late 1971.   COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi with his sentry dog, Fritz, while serving in Vietnam in late 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Fritz in late 1971.      COURTESY TOM GULDI

Fritz in late 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi leaving for Vietnam on August 3, 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

Tom Guldi leaving for Vietnam on August 3, 1971. COURTESY TOM GULDI

authorMichelle Trauring on Nov 15, 2023

As a young boy, Tom Guldi remembers watching the Fourth of July parade in Southampton — admiring, along with hundreds of spectators, the veterans who fought in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, as they marched through the village.

When he joined the U.S. Army at age 19 and deployed to Vietnam, Guldi thought he would fall in step alongside them. But when he returned home in 1972, he did not receive a hero’s welcome — or the respect and praise he’d seen at the parades.

Instead, he was met with indifference, he recalled, and rarely spoke about his service — falling into a common narrative shared among many Vietnam veterans across the country.

Last Saturday, Guldi broke his silence in a speech at a Veterans Day ceremony in Agawam Park, hosted by the Commission on Veterans Patriotic Events. By the end, he was accepting hugs from people he’d never met.

“After being home for 51 years, I felt it was time to share my story,” he said.

Born and raised in Southampton, Guldi grew up in a family of four and, every summer, he could be found on the water. Shortly after he graduated from high school in 1970, he enlisted in the Army, completing his basic training at Fort Polk in Louisiana before going on to military police training at Fort Gordon in Georgia.

Then, despite his fear of German shepherds, he volunteered to be a sentry dog handler.

“To me, this seemed to be a great opportunity to work with and learn how to handle highly trained and disciplined dogs,” he said.

For six weeks, he trained in Okinawa, Japan, and learned just how capable and deadly the dogs could be. On his first day, armed with a leash, collar and muzzle, he was sent into “the gauntlet” — two rows of kennels with growling, barking dogs, some literally foaming at the mouth.

“It was a little scary,” he recalled. “The dog leaped up on me and I thought, ‘Oh God, this is all over.’ But the dog was so happy to get out of the kennel. They didn’t really give me an aggressive dog to start with.”

Dogs snapped at him a couple of times, he said, but he was never bit — though the same was not true for two of his friends, one whose hand got torn apart.

“Sentry dogs were the most aggressive dogs,” Guldi said. “These dogs were basically trained to kill people. They didn’t just come nip somebody. They’re gonna tear somebody apart.”

When he deployed to Vietnam in 1971, the soldier met the dog that would become his protector, his best friend — a 3-year-old German shepherd named Fritz. The tattoo in his left ear read: “0M95.”

“I wasn’t really impressed with him, and I had a sense he wasn’t much impressed with me, either,” Guldi said. “One night, he went after me, and I did what I was trained to do. And after that, he realized I’m in charge.”

Together, stationed first at Cam Ranh Bay and then Nha Trang, they guarded the most sensitive military areas, from ammo dumps and petroleum storage areas to helicopter bases. They only worked at night, he said, and in the beginning, it was during monsoon season — from 10 p.m. to daybreak, “soaked to the skin” by the end of their patrol.

With Fritz by his side, though, Guldi said he felt confident. While he was spooked by the variety of war zone sounds heard in the night, Fritz was a source of calm — unless an intruder alerted them.

“His value was the ability to sense a saboteur, way before we might know or even get past us,” he said. “This would never happen with a sentry dog.”

It is estimated that 10,000 dog handlers and 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam — and 295 and 232 were killed in combat, respectively, Guldi said. It is also estimated that the dogs saved as many as 10,000 lives, he said.

“I remember training in Okinawa, and our sergeant told us that these dogs are so loyal they would, without thought, go into harm’s way for their handler,” he said. “I think perhaps he must have known of one incident where the handler was shot and fell in the open ground — totally vulnerable place. His dog, while being shot at, grabbed his flak jacket, bit it and dragged him to safety.

“The handler was medevaced out of the country, but he would never see his dog again,” he continued. “I believe that bothered him more than being shot.”

As the war drew to a close, the same realization dawned on Guldi — that he would have to say goodbye to Fritz. When that day came, in April 1972, he volunteered to load the dogs onto shipping crates. He brought Fritz out last, he said, and put him into the crate himself.

“As I watched the forklift pick up the crate, Fritz looked up at me as to say, ‘What’s going on?’ There was nothing I could do. I always felt I let him down and I never saw him again,” he said, his voice hitching. “And to this day, I don’t know what happened to him.”

Half of Guldi’s company would never make it back to the United States — Fritz among them, since he was military property, he explained. His own return home felt just as strange as traveling to Vietnam, he said, and fellow soldiers warned him to change out of his uniform before leaving the airport.

“As I look at the pictures of us in Vietnam, one thing really stands out: how young we were,” he said. “Vietnam is where we grew up and where we lost our innocence.”

Guldi would go on to study English at Miami Dade College and the University of Florida before ultimately starting Thomas J. Guldi Electric in Southampton. Here, he has raised two sons, Nate and Brendan — and the latter visited Vietnam with his father in 2018.

“What really blew my mind was there’s a theme park on one of the islands offshore with a gondola ride out to it,” Guldi said. “If you knew how crude everything was back during the war, that was just inconceivable.”

On Tuesday morning, the veteran was on a train out to New York City, where he takes German lessons. His goal is to, someday, become fluent — a goal he’s had since he was a child.

“My attitude is, I’m 71, I’m not gonna let a minute go to waste,” he said. “I don’t know how much time I’ve got, but not a minute will go to waste.”

That time will not be spent alone. At the start of the new year, he expects to adopt a new German shepherd — his fourth since his time in the Army.

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