Recounting horrors of warPublished 11:52am Monday, October 29, 2012
Vietnam vets came together in Austin last week
George Struthers walked through the hotel lobby doors in his American Legion jacket, where he found four men waiting for him. Another reunion of sorts had officially begun Friday morning for the small group that shares a stronger bond than most people will ever know.
They’re Vietnam veterans who all served in the same unit. They’re not related, but they’ve made it clear they are indeed brothers.
“We’re all more like brothers than we are friends,” said Jerry Robinson, who arrived in Austin from Wyoming to be with his comrades during the weekend.
Others — Walt Baker from New Jersey, Ed Cook from Michigan and Mike Bohan from Virginia — made the trek, as well. Some in the group, which used to meet every five years, have since passed away. Another wasn’t able to make the trip. Now they meet every two years.
“Our plan has always been to go to a different location,” Baker said.
So it was time to go to Minnesota, as Struthers lives in Adams and had plenty of activities planned for his buddies. First, however, they shook hands, drank coffee and exchanged gifts. Several wore identical hats brought by Baker showing “The Big Red 1,” which symbolizes their 1st Infantry Division. Cook handed out uniform patches with stitchings of “Swamprats.” A large couch and soft chairs beckoned at the group to sit down and relax, but with the energy flowing in the room, they stood — even Struthers, who moves with the aid of a walker.
More than 40 years later, they still remember intricate details about what they went through. Baker is forever indebted to Struthers.
“If it wasn’t for George, I wouldn’t be here,” Baker said.
Struthers didn’t allow Baker to join his Jeep patrol one night because of an expected attack on a nearby city. Baker had joined Struthers’ patrol plenty of times despite common attacks. However, that night, Struthers wouldn’t allow it. Rocket fire later struck close to where Baker would have sat. There is no uncertainty; he would have died.
Two years ago, Cook and Bohan met with the rest of the group for the first time in 43 years. Each man isn’t sure about who survived or died in Vietnam. Cook’s brother didn’t make it. Before the group met two years ago, some thought Cook had died in Vietnam, too.
Over the years, the men made a point to find others from their unit. Cook searched for Struthers in Minnesota, finally finding “Red,” as Struthers was known. Cook also found Bohan. Though some in the group hadn’t seen each other in decades, they all remember faces. They don’t remember all the names from their unit, but they remember the faces, along with the missions and the trying times.
Everyone remembered when one soldier simply got up and walked away during a battle. Nobody ever saw him again. Bohan saw it.
“I remember that; I sure do,” he said.
While Vietnam is largely the forgotten war for many, it’s still life for these veterans. They can’t forget how hard the war was, or coming home.
“We were called baby killers when we came home,” Struthers said.
Cook remembers Vietnam every day on purpose. He wears a POW MIA shirt for fellow veterans, or his Vietnam jacket. On the back it reads, “When I die I’ll go to Heaven because I’ve spent my time in Hell.”
In some ways these men are the same as they were as young, spry soldiers. They shoot the breeze and poke fun at each other. Yet they carry the same burdens. Their wives and significant others will say it. Baker’s wife, Linda, waited for Baker to change back to the way he was before the war. He never did, and neither did the others in the group.
“I kept thinking it was going to go back to the way it was,” Linda said. “I carried around all his emotions.”
Robinson’s wife, Portia, said her husband still has the same dreams. Those common experiences among the women have brought them closer, as well.
“I was kind of worried,” Linda Cooper, who is with Struthers, said about meeting the other women. Yet she and the women found a bond, as well. “We’re really all the same.”
Furthermore, the women better understand why their men are so closely bonded.
“You don’t even know,” said Bohan’s wife, Linda. “You have no idea how it was for them.”
Today, Iraq War and Afghanistan War veterans may benefit where Vietnam veterans suffered. Baker said he thinks the VA Hospital system has improved. Where post traumatic stress disorder used to be a mystery, now it is closely studied. Vietnam veterans took the brunt of criticism when they came home, so today others may not have to.
“I think that’s going to be our legacy,” Baker said. “That we helped the next generation.”
As the first day of the reunion progressed, the group found other activities. Not everything is war talk. The men saw the Spam Museum, went to Struthers’ house and saw Adams, too.
Still, a reunion can’t last forever, and each man has since gone his separate way. The men may be separated by miles and two years’ time until another get together, but nothing will ever put distance between their bond.