(Written August 16, 2010) Jean and I just got back from my 4th Viet Nam reunion. We had attended my first-ever reunion in 2004, which was also the first reunion of my Recondo platoon in over 20 years. That was a memorable event ( http://wind-drifter. … Nam/ReconReunion.php ). In 2006 the first reunion of the 2/502 Infantry Battalion (101st Airborne Div) was held, and we went to that too (the Recondos were part of the 2/502). They had been having yearly reunions through the early 80’s, then the guy who had been organizing them died, and his wife had thrown out all the records (which were simply index cards back then) - and no one had tried to put things together again until a couple of guys organized the one in 2006. That was held in conjunction with the larger 101st semi-annual reunion. It was also where I agreed to take over setting up a new web page ( http://2nd502.org ), and so became much more involved. This was the second reunion since then, both of which were held together with the 101st reunion.
Our numbers have grown, and there were 190 guys from the “O Deuce” alone signed up for this reunion, with many more on our roster who didn’t make it. Together with the other 101st vets, there may have been close to 1000 guys at this Indianapolis reunion, including a number of vets from World War II and Korea. These two guys were from the Easy Company that was featured in Band of Brothers:
They were a hoot - the guy on the right was a tiny little shriveled and bent gnome of a guy - and they both were running around looking like trouble searching for a place to happen. They had a lot, if not all, of their meals paid for by other vets at the local restaurant.
This was a year that a lot of loose ends and stories came together. Late Friday night, all seven of us from the Recondo platoon that were sitting at a table figured out that we had all served together for at least a few months in the summer of 67 (the Recondos typically operated at ~40-50 guys total).
We were piecing together various events and stories and different memories of them, filling in forgotten names, etc. A year or so ago I had been talking with my local buddy, “Beetle” (he only lives about an hour from Blacksburg, and we get together from time to time). I was asking him about a guy that had gotten seriously injured by a booby trap, wondering if he had lived. I was floored when Beetle said it was one of the guys I knew, Nick.
On the day of this event, we were all camped together for the night on a hill. In the morning we were broken up into two sections, and I was the Point Man for the first section off the hill. Generally the officer or NCO provides instructions for where to go, and the Point Man has a lot of latitude in picking the actual path. I followed an existing trail for a little ways, then decided to leave the trail. As I recall, it was not really anything to do with being cautious or smart, it simply had looked like a simpler/easier way to get to where we wanted to go. About 15 or 20 minutes later there was a tremendous explosion behind us. We learned that the point man for the other section had continued on the trail, and only a little way after I had left it he had run into what they think was a booby-trapped 105 artillery round. All I remembered from the time was that they told us on the radio that the guy had had “half his face blown off”, and was in really bad shape. I must have known his name then, but I had completely lost it over the years.
So when Beetle had told me it was Nick, I was astonished, because I had never noticed any scars or other effects. Beetle had been in that section, and he confirmed that Nick’s right side “was meat”. He also recalled that there was a black guy injured too, although not as seriously. Nick had been close enough to the blast that he was black from the powder/burns, and that they both looked like black guys after the explosion. I wrote to Nick at the time I learned it had been him, but I never got a response and didn’t want to force it.
When we were sitting at the table, I brought the issue up again - “you’re the guy that…” and he laughed and said “You’re Welcome” (for his having taken “my” boobytrap). Someday I want to ask him about the healing process - what it took to get him looking completely normal again - but I’ll leave that for another time. In the meantime we spent several hours talking about parallel life interests we have both had in photography and wood working.
Some of the guys seemed to be doing well, but others are still having difficulty. One guy (who was not at the reunion) had been one of my closest 3 or 4 friends in Nam, and we had kept in touch for 10 or 15 years, then lost touch. After a few years went by I found him again, and he told me he didn’t want to hear from me again, that he just wanted to put Viet Nam behind him. So we hadn’t had contact for over 20 years, until he popped up on the web site earlier this year. We had a few exchanges, and it sounded like he was positive about coming to the reunion. Then he ‘disappeared’ again, and would not respond to any efforts at contact. He’s avoiding what would probably help him the most.
One of Beetle’s closest friends over there has been ‘missing’ for 40 years, with Beetle doing everything he could to find him. Finally, his wife discovered the web site in the last year. The guy still won’t make contact, but through his wife Beetle managed to visit him a couple of times. The story he told was of a guy who is living in increasing isolation in remote hills of Tennessee, rarely leaving his property and avoiding other people. Beetle, who seems to have finally won the battles with his own demons after many years and failed attempts, is seriously worried about what he found. I recall one of the guys from the last reunion, who had stood up in front of us at a luncheon, almost mechanically repeating many of the key points of a 12-step PTSD program and how his life “was going to be OK now” - but the deer-in-the-headlights look in his eyes belied the confidence of his statements. For this reunion he was on a “spiritual retreat” in India. He made several phone calls to us during the reunion, and one night we passed a cellphone around talking to him.
Another of the 3 or 4 guys I was closest to over there, “Doc” is the only one who is still alive that I have contact with. He is still a great friend, and his wife and he get along great with Jean too. Every unit has their medic’s, all of whom are known as “Doc”. Theirs is the worst job of all - having to patch together horrific messes that were once friends, trying to keep them alive long enough to get them back to a hospital. My buddy is still fighting guilt over the booby-trap that got me and two other guys. One of the guys had had a piece of shrapnel go through his throat and hit his spine. He had been laying in some bushes, unable to talk, and nobody noticed him for a few minutes as Doc tended to me and the third guy. Eric was partially paralyzed the rest of his life. Doc is still punishing himself for not having found him sooner, and then about mistakes he may have made in moving the guy that might have contributed to the paralysis.
We were going over that again in the hallway on the way to our rooms late one evening - me pointing out that much of what he was feeling guilty about wasn’t even known then, besides which, he had to move the guy to get him out of there, and niceties such as back boards, etc. were not available. Hell, the chopper was even taking fire as we were being flown out - conditions not possible for the finer nuances of medical work. Then a door opened and a woman stuck her head out, asking us to please shut up.
One of the highlights of the reunion was a flight on a Huey - the UH-1 helicopter that was the workhorse of the Viet Nam war. Huey’s took us everywhere we went, brought us food and supplies, provided fire support, and took out our dead and wounded. Anyone who has spent any time around a Huey knows the distinctive wop-wop-wop sound of one passing overhead without having to look. It was the sound track for the Viet Nam war. A Huey restoration unit ( http://americanhuey369.com/ ) had a booth set up at the Reunion, selling rides for $100. After wanting to ride a Huey again for 40 years, I pulled out the credit card without thinking twice. Jean and I and Doc and his wife signed up.
We were out at the airfield early the next morning as the Huey arrived. As much as possible, they recreated the Viet Nam version of the helicopter. The pilots and crew (in the door gunner’s seats) were all Viet Nam vets. They even had the door guns mounted. They had to have seats for safety reasons (we had just sat on the floor), but the doors were open and everyone sat in the doorway and faced out, which was as close as you could get given the stateside rules. Normally there were 6 people per ride, but for some reason when we got our turn it was only the four of us. They knew both Doc and I were infantry guys and had ridden Huey’s a lot, so maybe that was the reason. Anyhow, we also noticed that our flight lasted about twice as long as the other flights we saw.
Jean loved it as much as I did - the door gunner even let her take the door gun and point it, and she loved sticking her feet out the door into the rotor wash. I just listened to the wop-wop of the blades overhead, took photos, and went back 40 years in memories. They gave us the whole ride, doing nice steep banked turns in both directions so you could look straight out and see the ground in front of you, and doing a stationary hover at about 1000 ft. Very cool.
The last night was the Division Dinner. A formal affair with the Honor Guard from Ft Campbell, memorial services and speeches, etc. I’ll admit to having some conflicting emotions from that. On the one hand I was proud to be part of such a distinguished unit, and to recall my old military salute at the passing of the colors, and to be part of the brotherhood of guys in that room. But as I listened to the speeches about honor, duty, valor, patriotism and service, I also couldn’t put out of my mind the actuality of the meat-grinder that war is. Of young lives being thrown into situations where the moral compass has no north to point to, of people dying (military and civilian) who should not have, of the countless numbers who will struggle to find their way home for the rest of their lives, with many never succeeding. And anger at the kind of politicians who had “other priorities” when their own time to serve came, but who are then eager to cast other young lives into the abyss that is war. And sorrow at the thought of the young men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom will still be trying to find home in 40 or 50 years.