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 addresses."
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 to testify.
"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, "All right!"
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 that.
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 face.
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.