53 years ago, in February of 1969, I returned to “the world” from Vietnam. I was released from active duty in October of that same year. Those were very difficult times. The war was unpopular, and the frustrations and anger of those who were against it often spilled over in negative ways on those of us who had served. As a result, most of us simply reacted to that negativity by closing down, trying to put our experiences somewhere in the back recesses of our minds. We simply put our heads down and got on with our lives.
Over the span of the next four and a half decades, I got married, had children, and made a successful and happy career for myself in teaching, and the memories of Vietnam and the friends I met and served with there faded. On occasion, though, particular memories, or the faces of a few of those then 18-year-old young men I served with, would pop into my consciousness, but they would recede again just as quickly as I went on with my daily life. Still, I always felt a kind of curiosity about those friends who I had known and who had survived that hell with me there.
About seven years ago, one of those friends contacted me out of the blue. He had been looking for me for years apparently. He was a fellow Navy Hospital Corpsman who, like me, had been transferred to the Fleet Marine Force after our Hospital Corps training. We met each other for the first time the day we arrived in Vietnam. That was in early January of 1968, shortly before the Tet Offensive began. We were assigned to the same unit, Bravo Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division.
At that time, Bravo Co. was attached to the 26th Marines at a forward air base called Khe Sanh. We arrived there at the beginning of the 77-day siege. In early April, after the siege, our company was sent to Quang Tri to join the rest of the battalion there. For the next seven months, we went out on many small, six- to eight-man patrols with our separate teams until late October.
After three months at Khe Sanh enduring the siege and ten months in the field humping through the bush on patrols with our teams, we were transferred together to serve out the last couple of months of our tours at the hospital, Charlie Med, also in Quang Tri. My friend rotated back to the world before me due to a medical issue, and that was the last I saw of him for the next four and a half decades, until he contacted me by phone and talked me into going to a Khe Sanh Association reunion in Nashville, TN.
I had trepidations about going to that reunion, but it proved to be much more powerful, meaningful, and important than I could have imagined. I then began attending the 3rd Recon Bn. reunions after that, as they were with the men I knew best, those with whom I had the most connections and shared experiences. It is the men of Bravo Co. 3rd Recon, with whom I went through that 77-day-long siege, that drew me to these reunions.
For the past 5 days, I have been in Dayton, Ohio, attending my 3rd Recon Bn. reunion. We are all in our mid-70s now. We are thicker and slower than we were when we served with each other in Vietnam in our late teens and early twenties. Many of us are slowed by the various realities of aging, but when we get together, it is always with the camaraderie that we formed back in our youthful Vietnam days. It is as deep and abiding as that of real brothers. One of the realities we face now is our own nearness to life’s ultimate reality, death. Since our last meeting, before the Covid pandemic, we lost some 26 of our Recon brothers. There are fewer of us each year.
Why do we go to these reunions? Why are they important? For me, there was, in the beginning, a curiosity. I wondered what those men I remembered over all those years looked like, what they had done with their lives. But in going to these reunions now for the last few years, I have had some questions that had nagged at me over those decades about particular events, or individuals I had known, and those I had taken care of when they were injured. I got clarification on some of my memories.
I had wondered, over all of those years, if anything I did back then, under those terrible circumstances, had made a difference or not. As a Corpsman, in combat situations, you do what you can for your buddies, then they are medevaced, and often you never see them again. You often do not get to hear how they did afterward. They go home, and you go on with your next patrol, and the one after that, and at the end of your tour, you go home. Things fade into the background and over time become only vague feelings. “Did I do well?” “Was I a good Corpsman?” “Did I make a difference for my Marines when I was there?” These unanswered and maybe unanswerable questions lingered in the back of my mind for all those years.
In going to these reunions, being with my brothers, remembering the things we went through together, hearing their perspectives on those memories, and remembering the men we lost at Khe Sanh, my memories have been clarified for me, and I have found real closure to so many of them. I have found both peace and gratitude. And I have enjoyed the conversations and the laughs over a lifetime of stories with my brothers.
In Vietnam, when we were in our late teens and early twenties, we had been thrust together from every corner of the country. We came from every class, color, and circumstance that can be found in this country. We became a unit, and it wasn’t that those distinctions no longer existed, but they were subsumed by the reality of our mutual dependence, our mutual need to survive the realities of war. When we get together now, those distinctions are still there, but for the few days that we are together, they are again put aside by the fact of our shared memories in the midst of war. We are brothers-in-arms, fellow veterans, friends.
Maybe that’s why we go to these reunions. Maybe it is to remember that, for a few months, or a year, we found ourselves thrust into circumstances no human being should ever have to know or experience, and during those times we were able to rise above the petty realities of everyday life in service to one another, in a cause greater than ourselves.
The fact is that no matter who we are now, or what we have done over our lives after our wartime experiences, we can look back and say with confidence that we did something of great consequence when we were young men long ago. To quote King Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech to his outnumbered troops before the battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s play, “Henry V”:
“This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered–
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day.