The Silver Star
By William Karabinos
It had to have been sometime in early December 1971. I was in the field with one of the troops (E, F or G) and we had the “wagons circled” somewhere north of An Loc and a little east of the Cambodian border.
It was hot, clear and sunny and at about 11:00 in the morning, someone popped smoke and a couple of Hueys settled down with a quartet of USO celebrities aboard. This was part of the group traveling with the Bob Hope troupe; but for us only the second string. The first team and all the pretty girls were with Bob Hope at Long Binh.
Three baseball players and an umpire came to visit us. Disappointing you might say. The Troopers kept watching the opened Hueys, but there was not a “dolly” in sight. Nonetheless, their visit was a break from bouncing through the bush, worried more about red ants and breaking torsion bars than VC snipers. Digesting diesel smoke and washing it down with sweat strained through a crusty mustache. We all seemed to have one then.
The ballplayers, as I recall were Bobby Bonds, Doc Ellis and a Kansas City star whose name escapes me. Accompanying the three ballplayers was National League umpire Nick Colosi.
The players hung around the command track and signed autographs and talked with a number of troops. Umpire Nick Colosi on the other hand walked to the perimeter and greeted the troopers either on their tanks or ACAV’s. As he made his way around the perimeter, he exuded a certain ease and was comfortable with the Blackhorse Troopers. Laughter followed him and a lot of smiles appeared on the faces of those he stopped to talk with.
When he crossed the open yardage, stepped around an RPG screen and approached the track I was with, our anxiety heightened. I was particularly anxious to meet him as he was a colleague of a good friend of mine and another umpire, Augie Donatelli.
Not only did I know Augie and Mary Donatelli, I had previously taught their children in school and felt Nick’s visit was somehow a surrogate visit from the whole family.
Nick did come on board with the ease of a veteran and we quickly found out why he was so much at home with these bare chested and grimy Troopers. Nick was a veteran of World War II. Italy and Anzio beach. It wasn’t long before he was exchanging war stories with the crew and developed a particularly close relationship with Mike Aguilar.
Mike was a big guy from California that we all called “Chief”. Both a Native American and combat veteran trooper, he had re-upped a number of times and (as I was told) had at least two or three Silver Stars. Nonetheless, Nick and Mike got into such a conversation that the umpire never moved from our track and we enjoyed his company for at least 20 to 30 minutes until word came down the choppers were revving up.
As Nick was shaking hands all around, I remember Mike digging into his gear and coming out with one of his Silver Stars. “Chief” Aguilar pinned the medal on Umpire Nick Colosi and fellow veteran of another era. Nick was touched. I was touched as he and big Mike embraced with back slapping gusto and laughter that possibly hid a few departing tears.
I’ll not forget that scene of mutual respect and manly appreciation that pronounced an understanding of what each had experienced.
A few months later, the Regiment left Vietnam and a number of us were transferred around. Many went home and just as many stayed on either voluntarily or because they had less than six months in country. Big Mike volunteered and went to another unit in country. That was March 1972.
In July, I was the Chaplain for the 229th Helicopter Assault Battalion (1st Air Cav) and flying one Sunday morning from firebase to firebase saying Masses for the troops.
Flying east of Long Than on our way to Baria, my pilot got a call that a Chinook went down in the area and to try and locate the aircraft.
He did so quickly as the fire and smoke was billowing up just a few clicks away. While he circled and awaited the Cobras to provide cover, I asked him to go down, hoping to help the survivors. We did and I got as close to the flaming Chinook as the intense heat would allow. No survivors. All I could see was metal burning, flames, smoke and ashes.
There was no possibility of anyone living through that holocaust. I was helpless. Except for prayer, offering conditional absolution for the souls of the troops on board and blessing their remains, I could do nothing.
A few days later after returning to Ben Hoa, I read the story of this tragedy and saw the manifest. Among the dead were some former Blackhorse Troopers but the one I knew and remembered well was Sergeant Mike Aguilar.