17 July 2013 by Published in: Opinion No comments yet

In the Company of Heroes

Commentary

by Deborah Steele Hazen

“Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”

That is the founding principle of the Vietnam Veterans of America. It was printed on a decorative wooden sign propped inside a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter  inside the Fargo Air Museum in Fargo, N.D.  when members of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry (Geronimo), 101st Airborne Division’s Vietnam veterans gathered there Thursday evening, July 11. It was the first organized activity of the company’s 2013 biennial reunion.

The poignant words have great meaning to Vietnam vets. Especially there inside an example of the aircraft – also known as a “Huey” or a “Slick” – that carried my husband Phil, and the approximately 50 other “B-2 501/101st” veterans in attendance at the reunion, in and out of firefights in the notorious A Shau Valley over 40 years ago.

Too often, those helicopters took them bleeding and wounded from landing zones chopped out of the triple-canopied jungles of the A Shau.

Sixty-four men, from this one company alone, gave their lives fighting for our country, each other and the freedom of the people of Southeast Asia in the “Tet Offensive,” in the Battle of Hue, on “Hamburger Hill,” (for which the second battalion of the “Screaming Eagles” received the presidential unit citation for heroic action); in the siege of Fire Support Base Ripcord, in scores of skirmishes and firefights along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Not infrequently, the Hueys were punctured by AK-47 or 51-calibre machine gun fire from well-equipped North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars as the pilots performed miracles to take the soldiers to temporary safety.

Sometimes, those miracles didn’t happen. One of our company, Dan Hefel, was serving as a helicopter door gunner on a “Huey” when it was shot down and crashed into a mountainside in the A Shau. He awoke with a broken back and third degree burns as NVA soldiers were making prisoners out of Dan and two other badly-wounded survivors. A fourth member of the crew was killed in the crash. That was in February of 1970.

Finally, in late March of 1973, after the politically-controversial bombings of Christmas 1972 brought the North Vietnamese back to the table and the Paris Peace Accords were finally signed, Dan was released along with the other American POWs.

Phil served in the A Shau from April of 1969 – fighting his way up Hamburger Hill in May and surviving numerous firefights – until March of 1970, then spent his last six months in the Army at Fort Carson, Colo.

He was sitting in the bar of Hump’s Restaurant in Clatskanie, watching the POWs’ homecoming on TV when he heard the name of “Dan Hefel” read by the announcer. He looked up to see his old friend and comrade-in-arms – whom he thought had been dead for over three years – coming off the “freedom” plane after 1143 days as a POW – most of it in a neighborhood of Hell deceptively named the “Plantation Gardens” prison in Hanoi, North Vietnam.

I’d read Dan’s story and heard Phil and others talking about it, but last weekend with a small group of other veterans and family members in the hospitality room at the Ramada Plaza Suite in Fargo, I heard him tell the story himself – how NVA soldiers dragged him paralyzed in a blanket tied to a pole through the jungles and streams of Vietnam for a couple of months before they got to the “Plantation Gardens,” how they threw him shackled into solitary when he was especially uncooperative, and how “the butchers” performed an appendectomy on him without anesthesia.

In response to Phil’s question, Dan said that he had indeed known Dennis Thompson, raised in Rainier, Oregon, who was serving with the Special Forces when he was captured under heroic circumstances at Lang Vei in February of 1968.

“One of the toughest guys I ever knew,” said the very tough Dan Hefel. “He’d come out after hours in the interrogation room (at the “Plantation Gardens” prison), and would drop to the floor and do a hundred push-ups just to show them they hadn’t broken him.”

(Read about the amazing valor of Dennis Thompson, a member of the U.S. Army Rangers Hall of Fame, at http://www.langvei.com/team-member-details-dennis-thompson.php)

Dan, an Iowa farm boy, survived hell, returned home, and fought through God-only-knows what kind of nightmarish memories to return to health and happiness. He’s a favorite at the reunions. He came to the one we hosted in Clatskanie in 2007, and he was honored by his fellow members of B-2 501/101st at the closing banquet in Fargo Saturday night.

Also honored that night was Leo “Doc” Flory, one of the company’s medics, who has written a book, Transition to Duty, about his experiences in Vietnam and with the men of B-2 501/101st. I finished Doc’s book our second night in Fargo, and it greatly increased my understanding of the stories I’ve heard and the emotions I’ve witnessed.

“How Fargo of You”

“Why are you going to Fargo, North Dakota?”

I was asked that several times by those to whom I mentioned our impending trip in the weeks preceding it. “To attend a reunion of Phil’s Vietnam combat company,” was my standard answer.

After getting last week’s Chief off to the press, we left for the airport early on Wednesday morning, July 10. Our friends, Dave and Pam Krautscheid of Portland, were waiting for us.

Dave was badly-injured during an ambush in a rocky creek bed in the A Shau when volunteers from the company were getting water on April 23, 1969. It was Phil’s first firefight, and Dave’s last. One man was killed and seven wounded in that ambush. Dave was loaded on a “Loach” helicopter in which the 2nd Battalion’s Colonel Robert German was traveling when he heard of the need for airlifting the wounded. Colonel German’s daughter and her husband were present at Saturday night’s banquet and program.

Dave spent over nine months in military hospitals, recovering from his wounds. When he had recovered sufficiently to go for a walk on the grounds of Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, he was spat upon by civilians. He saw other wounded Vietnam veterans have their crutches kicked out from under them.

Phil remembers helping to load those wounded in that ambush onto helicopters, but he didn’t personally know his fellow Oregonian Dave Krautscheid nor Dave Reinheimer, another of those wounded that day, until many years later.

About  20 years ago, Reinheimer, now president of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division Association, began searching out and contacting other members of the company who served in Vietnam from 1967 through 1972.

Thus began the reunions which have meant so much to these men, their wives and families.

Phil attended his first reunion, hosted by Dave and Lynn Reinheimer in 2001 in St. Louis, and hasn’t missed one since. I attended my first in 2005 in Tulsa, Okla., hosted by Phil’s sergeant James Duke and his wife Sandy. The Krautscheids and the Hazens hosted the next one, in 2007, in Portland and Clatskanie. The men of Company B and their wives are still relating fond memories of their trip to our hometown and the warm welcome they received here.

Since then, we have had reunions – held in or near the hometowns of the veterans who are hosting them – in Kalamazoo, Mich. in 2009 (hosted by Leo and Ann Flory) and in Branson, Mo. in 2011 (hosted by Mike “Doc” Edwards and his wife Jane). It was at the Branson reunion that Chuck and Sue German (no relation to Colonel German) of tiny Ludden, N.D., volunteered to host the 2013 reunion in Fargo.

Because of the deep bonds Phil has renewed with the men he fought beside over four decades ago, we would travel just about anywhere for these reunions.

Although we come from all over the country, from many walks of life and differing social, economic and educational backgrounds, the wives have also discovered, and increasingly enjoy, a bond of sisterhood. I look forward to the reunions as much as Phil, and besides the friendships, it also gives us an opportunity to visit cities we might not otherwise see.

But Fargo? Prior to traveling there last week, my primary association with Fargo was the 1995 movie by that name which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two for best original screenplay and best actress for Frances McDormand.

The quirky movie is violent and full of obscenities, but despite that, I like it. For me it’s endearing good characters, outweigh the bad.

After a pleasant flight, changing planes in Salt Lake City, we were sitting with the Krautscheids in the baggage claim area of Hector International Airport in Fargo – commenting on the tractors displayed between the baggage carousels – this is farming country after all. Pam and I brought up something about the movie, and I saw a woman glance at us. Her expression wasn’t angry; it was more disappointed and  a little bit hurt.

“You know,” I said to Pam. “I bet they don’t like that movie very much.”

Fargo is flat. It is cold in the winter, warm and humid this time of year. But it’s really a very nice small city.

When we arrived at the attractive and comfortable Ramada Plaza & Suites and Conference Center, headquarters for the reunion, we were presented, among other gifts, a copy of How Fargo of You “Lessons in Kindness from America’s Most Surprising Success” by Marc de Celle.

A former New York and Los Angeles resident who moved to Fargo in 2005, de Celle has written a book-length love letter to his new hometown.

It turns out that Fargo, despite its weather challenges, has a culture of kindness that is quite remarkable. His book chronicles hundreds of examples of random acts of the Golden Rule.

Additionally, while unemployment in the rest of the country has been over eight percent (and higher than that in our neighborhood), Fargo – which does not benefit from the oil boon of western North Dakota – has had only three percent unemployment – the lowest in the nation since the Great Recession hit.

And, according to de Celle, who was our guest speaker at Saturday night’s banquet, “there’s a direct relationship between those numbers and the way people treat each other around here…” The Fargo side of North Dakota “holds a little known, but much more remarkable story” than the Bakken oil fields of the western part of the state, says de Celle.

“A story of bankers quietly refusing, during the crazy years at the beginning of the 21st century, to sell the whacky mortgages that bankers and brokers across the rest of the United States were going nuts peddling. Why?? Because around here, people don’t like selling things that don’t make good sense or, worse yet, things that might hurt people.

“Even if they’re profitable. Even if they’re bankers.

“So while the rest of the rest of the United States is still living through the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as a result of the subprime mortgage mess, North Dakota never had a mess, or a crisis. We have far and away the lowest foreclosure rate in the country…”

Along with rock-bottom unemployment and foreclosure rates, de Celle also writes about Fargo’s high school graduation and post-secondary education rates – among the highest in the nation – and its very low crime rate.

But, all of that, still doesn’t explain Fargo’s success. It’s the people. They’re nice, they’re polite, they’re kind and helpful, and we got a big taste of that – especially from our hosts, Chuck and Sue German, and their large extended family who welcomed us, assisted in the planning of various events and sightseeing opportunities around Fargo, and then shared their considerable talents (Sue is a retired music teacher) in a patriotic, musical presentation and sing-along at the closing banquet.

Besides the nice people, there are interesting things to see in Fargo. The sightseeing opportunities on Friday and Saturday included the North Dakota Bonanzaville pioneer village with 43 historic buildings on 12 acres and thousands of artifacts of pioneer life and the cultural heritage of the Red River Valley, and the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Minn. – just across the Red River from Fargo – where a viking ship, built by Robert Asp and sailed to Norway by his family in 1982, is on permanent display.

There was also the opportunity to view a “Black Hawk” helicopter – which currently fulfills a similar role in Afghanistan that the Huey served in Vietnam. The Black Hawk’s  pilot attended the banquet Saturday night and received a round of applause from the men of B-2 501/101st.

Bonds Forged in Blood and Pain

But mostly, this reunion – like all of them we’ve attended – was about the bond  between these brothers-in-arms that was forged in blood and pain, courage and fear, self-sacrifice, duty and love of country.

Between reunions, the active members of the association reach out to veterans of Company B who have not attended. This year there were about eight “first-timers.”

They come in cautiously. Not sure if they want to be there. Not confident that they will have anything in common with these men with whom they walked through the valley of death over 40 years ago.

It is a remarkable and moving experience to sit and watch as the veteran reunion-goers welcome the newcomers; find out when they were in Vietnam, get them together with someone who was “in-country” at the same time.

They pore over stacks of picture albums, maps and military orders. They talk about the firefights, and the brothers lost. They relax. Sometimes they shed some tears, but they also find things to laugh about. They realize that they aren’t alone. That for all these years, there have been other Vietnam vets who understand; who also returned alone – without time to process their experiences with fellow soldiers – to an ungrateful nation.

Sitting quietly, listening and watching, you can see the burden of that pain lift from their shoulders.

At last they have been welcomed home.

 

 

 

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