When you hear the term “River Rats,” what comes to your mind?
That was the question posed by members of the Riverview VFW Post 8108 at their open house on Saturday, Jan. 16, where they served up a delicious menu of their award-winning barbecue to hungry passers-by from the enormous Gibtown Bike Fest being held at the Showmen’s Club just a mile down the road.
“We sold 12 racks of ribs, plus pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, till we completely ran out,” said Craig Stinson, who proudly held up the colorful first-place-award poster he received at the 2015 “Rock ‘n’ Ribs Festival” in the name of “River Rats BBQ.”
“We decided to name ourselves ‘The River Rats’ because the Post is located on the Alafia River, within walking distance to the water,” said Stinson, who serves as chaplain for the Post. “But there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Ask anyone to define the term “River Rat,” and you will get a variety of different answers. We hear the term applied to swimmers, sailors, water-skiers and fishermen, most often as a possessive and proud signature of local culture and lifestyle. There’s the hockey team in Albany, N.Y., called River Rats, not to mention the Colorado River Rats, Mississippi River Rats and Tennessee River Rats, to name a few.
“Sometimes people put a negative spin on it,” said Stinson, referring to the “olden days” when only poor folks lived along the river — those who couldn’t afford anything else.
“But times have changed,” said Stinson, as he talked about yet another group of “River Rats,” one representing a proud collection of American veterans — the “River Rats” who formed the backbone of the River Patrol Force of the Vietnam War. “The River Rats knew every little nook and cranny of those rivers in Vietnam,” said Stinson. “They were a very important part of the American offensive in that war.”
PBR, or Patrol Boat River, is the U.S. Navy designation for the most common craft used in the Vietnam War. As part of the River Patrol Force, the “River Rats” would stop and search river traffic in areas such as the Mekong Delta and the Saigon River in an attempt to disrupt weapons shipments. Each boat carried a crew of four bluejackets, along with two twin-mounted .50-caliber machine guns and two M60 machine guns.
With 3,000 nautical miles of rivers, canals and smaller streams, South Vietnam’s extensive inland waterways made it clear that the Navy would be in the forefront of the Vietnam conflict.
“We honor our Vietnam vets by calling ourselves the River Rats,” said Craig Stinson. “Without them, we couldn’t have fought that war.”
Stinson also acknowledged that the Vietnam War was probably one of the most unpopular conflicts that the United States has ever engaged in. “We need to commend those brave veterans for their service,” said Stinson, “Too many Vietnam vets feel they were passed over for the honor that was due to them.”
The pride in the Riverview VFW Post is clearly evident among its members. Founded in 1995 by a small group of veterans using a pickup truck as their post, it has grown to include a full meeting hall, restaurant kitchen and full-service bar.
“Our Post is like a family,” said Commander Steve Spears. “We really do care about our members, and since we are small, you won’t get lost in the shuffle.”
The Post’s community outreach programs include supporting two Cub Scout troops, Voice of Democracy, Patriot’s Pen contests and the U.S. Central Command’s family day at MacDill AFB. It has a very active Auxiliary that helps veterans and their families by collecting items to be sent to the troops, sponsoring children’s after-school activities, raising money through bake sales and dinners, and visiting veterans in hospitals and nursing homes. “There is something for everyone to do,” said Spears.
For more information on VFW Post 8108 and its activities, visit vfw8108.us or call 813-671-9845.