Service continues on home front
Farmington Navy veteran Don Gamer gave of himself when his country called on him during the Vietnam War. These days, he gives of himself when his community calls on him.
Gamer was just 17 years old when he entered the Navy in 1954 — his parents had to sign a waiver allowing him to enter because he wasn’t an adult yet. He was barely done with boot camp when he boarded the USS Phillipine SeaCVA-43 at the end of the Korean Conflict.
He was stationed on the USS Saratoga from 1957-63. He was a member of the Fox Division of the Saratoga, which meant he worked with the radar and maintained the proper functioning of all of the ship’s fire control installations. The sailors of the Fox Division operated rangefinders, computers, fire control radars and switchboards.
The USS Saratoga held 116 aircraft, all of which had nuclear capabilities. Those on board had to be ready in case of attack by an enemy, so they ran drills from time to time. One such drill required sailors to jump off from the ship’s platform into the icy water below.
“I could tell you stories about this ship,” Gamer said. “I could easily spend three or four hours just on this ship.”
He spent much of the Vietnam years on board ships up and down the coast between North and South Vietnam. The USS Castor AKS-1 was responsible to bring supplies into warzones, and, while Gamer was on board, collect and hold Vietcong prisoners.
While on board the USS Passumpsic, Gamer was in charge of all of the guns. In one incident, the Passumpsic was under fire, and Gamer had his men ready to return fire with a go-ahead from his commanding officer. The go-ahead never came, though. The incident angered him so much that he retired from the Navy and went into the Navy Reserves after returning to the U.S.
“They tried to blow us out of the water,” he recalled. “I was so mad.”
After leaving the Navy, Gamer came back to Minnesota and started a career as a carpenter for a company called Arcade Construction — one of the builders of what is now Boeckman Middle School. From there he took a job helping construct rollercoasters at Valleyfair. After that, he took on a caretaker job at an apartment complex in Coon Rapids.
Giving to the community
Some veterans choose to continue giving of themselves, even after they’ve left the ranks of the U.S. military. Gamer is one of those veterans.
He’s served as the commander of Farmington Veterans of Foreign Wars Sypal-Lundgren Post 7662 on five different terms. In recent years, he’s been an active member of Farmington’s Yellow Ribbon Network. He’s on the Farmington Veterans Memorial Committee, and he volunteers his time with the Farmington Support Our Troops Haunted House. He’s also a member of the Farmington American Legion.
“Anything that has anything to do with veterans, I pretty much do it,” he said.
But Gamer has also given his time to city government. He was elected to the Farmington City Council in 1996, and served a four-year term as a council member.
He figures it’s his duty, of sorts, to give back to a community that has given him so much support over the years.
“I became a resident of Farmington, and I’ve always stayed here. I’ve done so much here because they’ve been good to me,” he said.
A Vietnam veteran
Gamer is participating in Thursday’s Patriotic Day ceremony at Farmington High School, and he’s doing so as a proud veteran of the Vietnam War.
He’s got stories, experiences, that he doesn’t like to share — in part, because he doesn’t want to dredge up some of those bad memories — from his time in Vietnam. He knows he didn’t see the same action as the soldiers on foot, that he was somewhat shielded from the horror of some of those battles, because he was stationed on water. Still, he knows the pain of losing two good friends, shipmates, to the war.
“I can talk about some of this stuff now. Fifteen or 20 years ago, I probably couldn’t,” Gamer said.
He remembers the attitude of Americans when he came home, too. He found brotherhood among friends and fellow veterans in Farmington, and eventually that pain wore away.
Now, when he goes into classrooms and talks to students about his years in the Navy, Gamer gets words of thanks instead of criticism.
“It brings tears to your eyes. The kids are so nice to you,” he said. “The climate has completely changed now.”
Regardless, if he had to do it all over again, Gamer would enlist and serve his country once again in a heartbeat.