by Ty Dodge
3rd Platoon, I Troop, 1969
For Vietnam vets, many things bring closure. Some return to Vietnam. Some visit The Wall. Some find closure in
reunions. All of us, I think, find it in the brotherhood of those with whom we’ve shared the boredom and terror of combat.
Over the past thirty years I’ve done all those things. And they were good. But the best have been the reacquaintances along the way. The finding of an old friend someone with whom I shared one of the most significant experiences of my life.
This is a story of one such reunion. It’s also a story of courage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to begin at the
beginning July 1969. I’d been in country less than a month as I Troop’s 3rd platoon leader. I had a lot of great guys in my platoon, and Sgt. E5 Gary Pinion was one of the best. He was one of my Track Commanders. Well liked. Respected. Dependable. In the pressure of the combat experience you quickly learn about a person’s character. Gary was one of
those guys you wanted to have around when things weren’t going exactly your way.
July 8th was a typical rainy season day as I Troop reconned the rubber plantations and jungle around An Loc. Being fairly close to the Cambodian border, the NVA and VC were a constant threat in our AO, and we’d been sent to find them. Just another day at The War.
Because the 11th Armored Cav regularly operated in that area, the enemy regularly mined it. As such, the engineers were
sent ahead to sweep the area where I Troop would spend the night. Late in the afternoon, as my platoon moved into its NDP, Gary was ground-guiding his track into position.
Suddenly an explosion ripped the air! “Man down! Pinion’s down!” Gary had been standing next to his track when it hit the mine, and now men were running in his direction! You need to understand the bond among men in combat. These guys were jumping into a minefield from the relative safety of their tracks to help one of their brothers. Gary lay motionless on the ground, much of his face blown away. Our medic performed an emergency tracheotomy, put him back together as best he could, and we called for a dustoff. So began the longest journey of Gary Pinion’s life.
As often happens in combat, you wonder what becomes of those taken suddenly from the field of battle—and just as often, you never know. I’ve wondered over the years what became of Gary. Given the severity of his wounds, I suspected he didn’t make it. Or if he did … well, I didn’t really want to think about that.
Plagued, though, by a thirty-two-yearlong feeling of business left unfinished, I went to the internet a few weeks ago to see
if I could find him. I knew he was from Clinton, Ohio, so that’s where I started my search. I eventually found a Gary Pinion in Akron. Would he be the Gary Pinion I’d had the honor of serving with ten thousand miles away in a little country called
Vietnam? And after thirty-two years, would I have the nerve to make the call?
It took a few days to summon up my courage, but finally I went to the phone one evening and dialed the number. After several rings a low voice answered. “Hello.” My heart was in my throat. “Is this Gary Pinion?” I asked. “Yes it is,” came the reply. “Are you the Gary Pinion who served in Vietnam?” “Yes, I am,” answered the voice. “Gary, this is Ty Dodge, and I think I was your platoon leader.” With no hesitation he said, “I remember you, LT.”
I can’t begin to describe the flood of emotions that drained from me during the next half hour as we renewed our acquaintance after all those years. But I can say this: for me, our reunion on the phone tied up one more of those loose ends that combat veterans so often deal with. I think it may have connected a loose end for Gary, too. You see, Gary never knew what hit him. The shock of the blast that July day left him with no memory of what happened. And the medical staff at his next stop—and at the many, many more stops he made reconstructing his body and his life over the years—had little idea either. All he’d known was that something terrible happened that day, and he was left blind. Now he knows.
But the rest of the story is that Gary Pinion is a survivor. He lives today in his own home not far from his mom, his daughter, and his two granddaughters. He’s a man who has suffered greater adversity than most of us can even imagine. Yet the voice that spoke to me this Christmas Eve was full of hope and love. And when I told his daughter, Lynette, he was a man of whom she could be very proud, she answered with certainty, “I am proud of my dad.” I’m not exactly sure how you define the term “hero,” but I do know this: Gary Pinion is one of my heroes.