Memories flow at Vietnam Veterans Reunion
By ELENA BROWN SPECIAL TO THE GAZETTE
As they finish registering and making their way to the
bunker, hearing aids and canes are of little consequence.
The gray hair and arthritis are forgotten. There’s no talk or thought of heart or liver or other ailments. The men are transformed into “fit-to-serve” as they pass through the threshold into the arms of their buddies.
“Welcome home, brother,” says a man to my father. “It’s good to see you back.”
My 58-year-old dad smiles. And the men hug.
The men of the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia embrace each other with the welcome they never received when they returned home from the war decades ago.
My dad, retired Army Sgt. Edward Brown Jr., and I try to make the annual four-day reunions together every year, as we did last week when it was in Colorado Springs. It’s our father-daughter time. It’s where stories I never heard at home are shared. Where people can sit at any table and look at pictures of teenagers in tanks thousands of miles away. Where most stories start with “Remember when?” or “How about the time?”
It’s where a gray-haired biker with tattoos chats with a grandfather who is an officer of a local homeowners association.
The Vietnam reunion is intense, but the slice of history is filling.
I was 13 when I went to my first reunion in 1987 in Louisville, Ky. I didn’t understand the hugs and songs of the ’60s being played every night.
I’ve attended seven of these reunions, and I’ve watched men return and mourn the men that didn’t. I now understand just how important the reunions are.
Through the years, my dad’s brothers-in-arms became my “honorary uncles.” There’s something comforting about knowing I can be anywhere in America and have a goodhearted man to watch over me.
The banquet this year included awards, prestigious speakers, thousands of dollars in scholarships for the children of men who served and video feeds from Blackhorse troopers in Iraq. Men were honored this year with the Bronze Star for actions of 35 years ago. Here, honor and valor never fade.
The “Blackhorse Salute” slide show signaled the end of the banquet program. Francis “Frank” Gowrie lit up a cigarette at the dinner table. Smoking isn’t allowed at the banquet, but no one complained.
“It’s nerves, baby,” my dad explained as he sipped from his beer. “This can bring up some bad memories.”
Intense images on the four giant screens reminded us — several hundred vets and their friends and family members — why we were here. Pictures from the air and ground showed men at war more than 30 years ago. A radio transmission of combat was played. It freshened the memories of good and bad.
I watched Gowrie, a retired New York City cop, getting increasingly emotional. His tears become my own. But we weren’t alone. My father grabbed my hand, and a member of Gowrie’s unit placed an arm around his shoulder.
During the 20th reunion memorial service at the Shrine of Remembrance, the chaplain asked the crowd if anyone would like to speak on behalf of the fallen. The men stirred, but no one moved. Moments passed and four men climbed the small hill under the warm sun and took to the podium. That was the day I heard my father speak.
He spoke to his brothers and their families about patience struggling with Veterans Administration red tape, of understanding the need to control vices and regaining lost faith.
“Where was God when I was in Vietnam?” he asked the crowd as he recounted Spc. Ron Clark falling into him during the fight when he was also wounded. Clark took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. His death was fast and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer, my dad said.
“God left me here for a reason,” dad said. “He made sure I came back.
“If and when you see a brother falling down, pick him back up.”
When the memorial concluded, a Fort Carson soldier played taps behind the flag snapping in the wind above.
Ron Betz, who was drafted, and my dad, who volunteered, are always selfishly inseparable during the reunions, but it’s OK.
Some of the “newbies” had to learn that when our dads, uncles and grandfathers exclude us it’s not intentional. This is an intense reunion of men who served in an unpopular war. There is a bond that defies race, religion and sometimes manners. Once they return from the shared memory, they’ll introduce and include us — we just have to be patient.
My dad and his buddies would tell me of May 14, 1968, when the 1st Platoon was hit.
“We let loose with everything we had,” dad said.
“It was pretty chaotic; it was a tough one,” Betz agreed. “We lost about five people.”
Dad took most of his injuries on his right side, receiving wounds in his shoulder, chest, hip and leg. The blast perforated his eardrums. He spent three years in the hospital and had 11 surgeries recovering from that one bad episode.
When all was said and done, he received the Purple Heart, Army Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, Army Valorous Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service, Combat Infantry Badge and Army Sharpshooter Badge.
The void that Vietnam left in the souls of vets grows smaller with each reunion, a place to remember and a place to heal.
First-timer Mackenzie Wink, 10, of Amery, Wis., arrived with her grandfather, Dirk McCloud.
“I’m glad my Gramps came back,” she said.
It’s a common feeling, because in the sea of faces, there is probably someone who served with and maybe even saved your loved one.