A Reunion To Remember
Group of Vietnam veterans rediscovers bonds that can't be broken
By Micheal R. Holmes
Special to Empire Life Jan. 14, 1990
In early 1988 I was at the Pentagon on a writing assignment for the Department of the
Navy. On an impulse that was half whim and half hope, I dialed a number and reached out
to touch Ronald E. Benoit, Captain, United States Marine Corps, Retired.
Ron Benoit was my Recon Team commander in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He
took me and a group of other teenage boys deep into the jungle and tried to keep us alive
while we did things that still keep some of us awake and screaming into the dark. Ron
couldn't save us all, but he tried.
Our job was reconnaissance. A small group of us would get on a helicopter at our home
base in Chu Lai and fly west for a while. We'd get dropped off deep in the bush, as we
called it, and sneak around for several days, hiding or moving at night and looking for
whatever the people who directed our lives wanted us to find.
To enter the bush on patrol was to enter a place so strange and twisted that our
experiences often approached the mystical. The bush was hostile, it was foreign, and it
was very dangerous.
At the least, a patrol meant walking bent over for day at a time, not speaking above a
whisper. Besides the men and women who waited to kill you and the deadly little
surprises they buried in the ground, it meant poisonous snakes, gorillas, tigers and small,
slimy gray things that fastened themselves to your body and sucked your blood.
In the summer the bush meant heat stroke that could kill you standing up. In the
monsoon seasons it meant "immersion foot" so bad you could almost hear your toes rot. At
all times it meant bad food, stale water and body odors so foul they'd hang in the air like
a stain. And for me, it meant fear.
I was afraid my entire time in Vietnam. Sometimes, at night, in the jungle, I was so
terrified that I'd hallucinate in vivid, shimmering colors. I saw Jesus once, with
long hair and flowing robes, standing right in the middle of the trail. He was smiling sadly
and shaking his head.
Another time I took a step and everything disappeared - the guy in front of me, the
jungle, everything. I stood on the shore of a vast ocean that stretched off into a cloud bank
and actually took three or four steps out into the water before everything got green and
leafy again. .
Everybody knew I was afraid, too. You don't know all there is to know about someone
you serve in combat with, but you do know everything about part of them. But I did my
job and anyway, the hallucinations were a lot less weird than what some of the guys were
into. Some would catch and cook rats. Once I saw a dried ear thrown into a mess tin of scrambled eggs. There was also your basic stuff like sticking the ace of spades into a dead guy's mouth. But my friend, J.J. who went crazy with only 10 days left, really summed it all up.
J.J. was a short, fat guy with a big wide smile like the entrance to a fun house. J.J.
refused to look into mirrors. He'd shave by sense of touch, and once shot a metal mirror
off a pole with a .45 automatic. He would explain himself with a small, quiet laugh: "If
I can't see myself," he'd say, "then I'm not here."
That was the thing about the bush. It was' always there. You had always just come back
from there, were on your way there, or couldn't stop thinking about there. The bush
was an absolute, and absolutes are almost impossible to come by anymore, at least in
this country. That's why, I think, so many of us are still there.
It's sure as hell where I was when I heard Ron Benoit's voice on the phone. His voice
hadn't changed in 22 years, and he said "Mike?" and I said "Lieutenant?" and he
laughed and said "Call me Ron" and I couldn't call him anything because I smelled the
green, wet bush again and heard the thump-thump-thump of a Huey gunship and the
tears were starting to come so I just made a kind of choking sound and then just sat there
and stared into a hole in the air that was a thousand miles deep.
Then we talked. And among 10,000 other things we talked about a reunion. I was
skeptical. I told him I didn't think we could locate enough of the guys. "I can find a few,"
Ron said, "and maybe I've got way. of finding more. Anyhow, there was the thing with
Charlie down in Louisiana. His lawyer found a few of the men through that. I've still got their
Charlie had come to the team, gone on a few patrols, seen some bad stuff, gotten wounded
and gone home to Texas. He got married, settled down, then started having problems. His
wife left him and took the children to her brother's house in Louisiana., Charlie went after
her. When his brother-in-law met him at the door with a gun, Charlie pulled his own and
shot him dead right there on the doorstep. He was arrested and found not guilty by reason
of insanity. The insanity was Vietnam, and Ron and some of the guys had gone down there
"Well," I said, "maybe we can get the ball rolling." I said that, but to me it was like raising
the Titanic. The possibility was there, but the reality was down so deep and who knew what
the years had eroded. Anyhow I'd thought and hoped and remembered all those years,
but that didn't mean anyone else had. But a seed had been planted. Sometimes you just have
to believe because even if it doesn't come true, believing is the right thing to do. I came
back to Spokane a few days later. Time passed and I thought about it, but it was ashes from
a cold fire. Then one day Ron called me and said, "I think I've found Darrell up in
Minnesota." I'd seen Darrell get his third Purple Heart when Charles, another Charles, hit
a trip wire on point.
It was a setup the VC liked to use where the trip wire ran across the trail and then snaked
back, unseen in the grass, to a booby trap about 30 feet behind it. This would get more
people because it'd blow up about, the middle of the column.
That's what it did, and it got several of us, as well as setting off a CS gas grenade which
confused things even more. Anyhow, Willie and I crawled over to Darrell, who was lying
still on his stomach. We thought he was dead, but we rolled him over anyway to make sure.
His face was black with burns, but he opened both eyes and grinned and held up three
fingers for three Purple Hearts, which meant he was going home. And Willie and I said,
So I called that number and Darrell was still alive and real and he said, "Hell yes, man!
Hell yes I'll be there, just say when and where, and, hell yes, I'll be there!" In his big
Minnesota Swede accent he said that and a bell rang, and man, it started.
That was our omen, that was our sign. From then on we could do no wrong and Ron
would find names and I'd call or write and at first there'd be disbelief and then a guy
would say, "Hell yes, man! Hell yes, I'll be there!"
Nine months went by. My wife Melissa and daughter Michal had picked out clothes
for the trip and I had the plane tickets hidden in my sock drawer. The reunion
was to be in Washington, D.C., in the last part of August 1989, some 22 years since we'd
seen one another. It was a long way to travel for some of us, but the symbolism was so
obvious, and of course The Wall - the Vietnam Memorial - was there, so everybody
agreed it was the only place.
On the first day of the reunion, we were talking to Ron and his wife Barbara down in
the hotel lobby. And then Tim Fonderlin was there, introducing his wife Diane and
son Shane, who could have passed for Tim last time I saw him. Timmy was older and
had a beard, but he still had that kind of quiet self-possession that made him one of the
best natural bush leaders I ever saw.
Willie Ridgeway was there, too, still in the Marine Corps but a first sergeant now with
24 years of service behind him. He had a gravel voice and gimlet eye like the
former drill instructor that he was, but he was still Willie.
We moved into the bar filled with overstuffed chairs and open to the lobby and we
talked and laughed in short nervous bursts that gradually slowed down and flattened
out as we settled into this strange new feeling.
As we were talking, a tall, white-haired guy in a designer tennis outfit walked in,
went up to the bar and sat down. He ordered a beer and sat there looking at us.
Ron was talking about something when suddenly the guy got up, walked over and
stood in the middle of our little group. He looked at Ron. "Is that Ron Benoit?" he
asked, and choked on the word "Benoit." Benoit nodded and stood up slowly.
"Who're you?" he, asked with a kind of wonder in his voice.
"I'm Danny Thompson," the man said, and then lurched forward with his arms out.
"Jesus Christ," somebody said, and it was probably me.
Ron tried to step back, but a table blocked him and suddenly the man was hugging
him and crying and Ron was trying to hug him back but it happened too fast so he
stopped and just stood there. Then the moment swept us all up and Barbara Benoit
was crying and Tim and I had Danny around the shoulders.
So Danny came into our little circle with his white hair and young old face.
"Click-click," he said. "Click-click." Ron nodded and they talked about it.
Danny was out in the bush as a radio operator with a new lieutenant after Ron and
I were blown up. It was night time and the VC were all around them in the dark.
Danny could hear the soft rustling noises as they got into position and he whispered
into his radio that it wasn't safe to talk any longer.
Ron was helping with the radio net back in a rear area. "I understand you are
surrounded," he transmitted. "If that's so click your hand set once."
"1 understand you are about to get overrun. Is that' so, "click-your handset again."
Then the VC opened up and rushed forward out of the dark, firing into the team.
The new lieutenant was shot dead and an AK-47 round took the radio out and that
was the last anyone heard of Danny and the other guys until the survivors were
found a day or so later.
So that day passed and ended, and the next morning we turned the hospitality suite
into a time capsule.
A huge Recon emblem went up, a skull superimposed on the
blue and white diamond of the First Marine Division. A Marine Corps flag was
tacked on one side and a large map of the Republic of South Vietnam on the other.
A long table was scattered with Nam pictures and slides and the soundtrack of
"Platoon" wailed from a rented tape deck.
We had a tub full of ice and beer, a couple of bottles of wine and soda. The room
swirled with people for a while, but finally settled into a pattern. The guys sat in a
rough circle on more overstuffed couches, drinking beer, talking and laughing.
Our wives moved in and out of the circle and our children, ranging in age from
10 to 22, mostly sat over by the food and watched. Marilyn Thompson, Danny's wife,
floated quietly around the room with a video camera.
The talk rose and fell in waves. In the occasional silence we looked over the tilted
bottoms of our beer cans. Ed sucked the moment in through our eyes.
People began to arrive and every guy who suddenly appeared in the open doorway
just stood there, riveted, until one of us got up from the circle and put our arms And
we touched each other, my God how we touched one another.
I went up to Darrell Lindgren and I didn't just hug him, I dug my fingers into his
shoulders and kneaded him; when Bill Howard stuck his big round Alabama
face in front of mine and blinked and grinned at me I had to touch him, I had to
have my arms around his neck; I didn't even flinch when he kissed me on the cheek,
and I saw that even though wrinkles had collected around his eyes like flotsam
around the edge of a pond, the centers were still blue and clear.
We talked of many things, expressing ourselves in Phil Rogers' Alabama drawl,
my Northwest twang and Danny's East Coast staccato. Finally, we talked about
the hill where Joe Barnes got killed and our team ceased to exist
as we first knew it.
The choppers put us in on a finger ridge near the South China Sea to check out
an area before a major landing was to take place. We came in under heavy fire
from two machine guns and immediately ran for a cluster of large boulders a few
yards away. When we got in there, the whole world blew up.
Hidden NVA, the infantry reaction force told us later, were watching us through
binoculars and touching off bombs and artillery shells buried beneath us. Joe
Barnes was moving to check the perimeter when a hug explosion erupted right
under him and he was blown into a red mist. We found a piece of his leg, wrapped
it in a rubber poncho and took it with us. His family didn't even get
Benoit got both eardrums broken on that hill, Doc Brodie got his back broken
and shrapnel in his brain, Mac was shredded red from eyebrows to belly button
and Davy screamed when a swatch of Joe's pubic hair hit him in the
Those are some of the things we had in common as boys, and it was one reason
why we loved each other as men.
The reunion went on and we drank more beer and we talked; next morning we
got up and went to Arlington Cemetery and the Vietnam Wall. We got "rubbings"
on pieces of paper from several names carved on The Wall. and stood in a tight
little circle there and said a prayer. People filing by stopped and looked at us
and I wonder what they saw.
Wednesday night all 24 of us sat down to dinner in a reserved section of the
hotel restaurant. Ron Benoit gave a speech and we gave him a plaque. Willie
Ridgeway gave several speeches and we gave him a set of Sargent Major
chevrons for his upcoming promotion. We ate and drank and toasted one
another and folded away lists of addresses and phone numbers.
That was pretty much it. We decided that Tim and Danny would set up the
next reunion, two years later. Nobody knew yet where it was going to be and
nobody cared. All we knew and cared about was that we'd found each other
again and that we'd never in this life let go.
It was a simple thing that happened, a coming together of people who
discovered they loved each other, who drew healing from that love and who
went away with a new capacity for life.
I'm crying now, as I think about it, as I remember it. We did something
once that was bigger than ourselves and we did it as a team. We found our
way back to that team, thank you God, and for a while we found our way
back to that thing that was bigger than ourselves.
Micheal R. Holmes is a free-lance writer based in Spokane.