President Ronald Reagan once declared the Vietnamese soldiers to be one of the most dangerous enemies.
It wasn’t uncommon for American “tunnel rat” soldiers to meet face-to-face with North Vietnamese Army soldiers.
Tunnel rats were soldiers who volunteered to search a network of tunnels, generally pitch black, with only a flashlight and .45-caliber weapon as gear.
One American tunnel rat, retired Sgt. Maj. Brian Kielpinski, completed a year-long tour in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with Bravo Company, 1st “GarryOwen” Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, collecting the enemy’s flag and an officer’s belt buckle and lighter.
“Once in a while you would find a weapons case (in the tunnels) and some were abandoned; one time they found a hospital,” Kielpinski said. “The hospital had been recently abandoned, so we took a lot of the equipment for our men.”
Nearly 45 years later, he donated his collection to GarryOwen in an Oct. 23 ceremony, believing “it’s now back to where it belongs.”
During one tunnel rat mission, Kielpinski, 19 at the time, flew into a zone under heavy fire. While camped out, he stared at the North Vietnamese Army flag for three days.
“Keep a look-out for me, I am getting that flag,” he told his soldiers, then proceeded to run across a rice paddy field, knock down the pole and gain possession of the flag.
Returning home, he brought the mementos with him, where they went into a drawer and were forgotten about for many years.
“One time when my older brother was (visiting) I had them out and he said, ‘Jeez, I never knew you had all that,’” Kielpinski said.
His brother, owning a frame shop, framed and then hung them in his family office.
Kielpinski didn’t originally plan on donating the flag to GarryOwen himself, but rather have it donated by his son, Lt. Col. Michael Kielpinski, commander of the 1st “Head Hunter” Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment of the division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team.
“(My son) was visiting in June and I sent the flag back to Texas with him,” Brian Kielpinski said. “He kind of pushed me to do it the right way, so I agreed.”
Michael Kielpinski pushed for his father’s involvement when he was notified of his promotion to lieutenant colonel.
“He asked me if I would mind doing his promotion on the same day as handing over the flag, I said it would be wonderful,” Brian Kielpinski said. “I am very proud of him and seeing him and what he has accomplished puts me at peace.”
Understanding the importance of history to the GarryOwen family, he knew exactly where they belonged.
“Just like Custer, all those little sands of history equal the whole history of 1-7 (Cav), and I thought this is part of it and should be with those troopers,” Brian Kielpinski said.
The historical significance was clear among all who attended, especially the recipient of the gifts, GarryOwen commander, Lt. Col. Jay Miseli.
“It’s very significant to me,” Miseli said. “It’s very personally rewarding as well. To see the inherent pride that exists in this squadron, not only in the troopers, but with our families and veterans.”
Miseli holds a deep history with both participating units, previously serving as the Head Hunters operations and executive officer.
The artifacts will be housed in the GarryOwen conference room.
“Over all those years I served, I served in a lot of infantry battalions, but I’ll always be a trooper and GarryOwen will always be my first,” Brian Kielpinski said. “I have a personal attachment to the 1st of 7th, but not one to the flag. When I first got it, it felt good, but it’s now home.”