Vietnam veterans gather in Hastings for reunion
Standing in the shade near the raised American flag, a group of men told stories. There was laughter, tears and joking as they recalled earlier days and tougher times.
This week marked the 18th reunion of the men and families of the third battalion, 506th infantry, 101st Airborne Division, a group who served together in Vietnam nearly 50 years ago.
“We thank you Lord that 49 or 50 years ago by the grace of God that you were able to take a handful of people for some reason and put us together 10,000 miles away and all these years later Lord we still have that strong friendship and love for each other and the families of those who didn’t come home,” said chaplain Ben Currin. “We pray every day for our Currahee brothers as well as the brothers in other units also that left home, said their good-byes and never returned. We pray for the day we shall once again meet with them in heaven.”
Dick Freeling of Hastings served with those men and brought his brothers and their families to Hastings for a reunion this week, which included a tour of the former U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot and the National Guard Greenlief Training Site.
Late Friday afternoon, the men gathered in the American Legion Park on the north side of Hastings to remember those who did not make it home.
Capt. Jim Waybright of Williamstown, West Virginia, stood before the group of more than 50 people as he recited from memory the names of the fallen including Jeffrey Freeman, a man not of their unit who became attached to their unit and died in a fire fight on April 8, 1970. They only discovered his death a few months ago.
Rick Brown is the group’s researcher who finds the families of those who did not return home and discovered the fate of their brother Jeffrey Freeman.
It was on April 8, 1970, while the men were in the Binh Dinh Province of Vietnam when Freeman’s dog started to indicate there was something up ahead.
“I talked to him 30 minutes before and he said the dog could sniff out booby traps and everything within so many yards,” said Ron Gooch of Trinity, North Carolina.
Gooch, who was injured that day, said there was a booby trap that exploded causing his injuries and knocking out his friend Billy Sorg. They both remember a giant bush in front of them and after the explosion it was gone.
“God told me I wasn’t going to die laying there,” Gooch said. “God told me I wasn’t going to die.”
“I woke up and everything was over,” Sorg said. “I lost my hearing and got road rash on my face.”
No one knew what happened to Freeman that day. It was only recently that Brown found his death records online indicating Freeman had died that day.
Thus Freeman’s name and the names of two others related to their unit in Vietnam were added to the list of 18 members of their unit who did not make it home.
Brown said it brings him comfort to be able to find information about his fellow fallen soldiers and their families.
“The one that got me the most was Peoria, Illinois, Fred Harms Jr.,” Brown said. “We were good friends and I remember his dad grabbing my hands when I went to visit him and he said, ‘I miss my Freddy.’ We were both crying.”
During Friday’s ceremony, Waybright listed all those names from memory as the chaplain rang a triangle in their memory.
“As I get older it’s tougher,” Waybright said of remembering all the names. “As you can tell I will never forget them. I might not remember all 18 at the same time but I never forget.”
Freeling arrived in Vietnam in January 1969 and left in early January 1970 just prior to the start of all the action that the unit saw leaving them with 18 fewer members.
“I got a letter and they talked about several of the guys getting killed. I thought, ‘This was getting hot,’” Freeling said of his thoughts at the time. “For quite a few years I didn’t know if anybody made it home.”
In fact in those months after he returned home and Freeling heard of the situations his friends were in, he considered re-enlisting even though he was newly married to his wife, Nancy.
“I did really seriously consider going back in. I think if I got back but of course every guy who wasn’t there thinks that,” he said of thoughts of saving his friends. “I’ve come to grips with survivor guilt.”
Freeling said there are a lot of the guys who have that survivor guilt for having come home or having come home without a scratch as he did.
Gooch said for him its living in memory of those who weren’t able to come home.
“It’s also about honoring the people who got killed,” he said. “We came back. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to remember them. We made it.”
While this is the 19th reunion of the group who for the most part has fun and jokes together, it isn’t always easy.
In fact for most of the men, the first time seeing their brothers again can be very emotional as it brings back memories most have tried to bury for decades.
Waybright said there were two men who came to Hastings for their first reunion this week and both experienced that emotion as others have. For many the key emotion is anxiety wondering how they will treated.
“Everyone when they walked in the first time had the anxiety,” Waybright said. “One guy slept in his car. He was that shaken.”
Gooch said he avoided the reunions for five years because he didn’t want to think about Vietnam.
“We went 25 years without him saying a thing,” said Gooch’s wife Fredia. “I think it was really healing for them.”
In fact, the first reunion was the first time Fredia ever heard Ron talk about Vietnam. He said it was easier to talk with people who had been there than strangers. And those first conversations are usually emotional, eliciting tears for many.
“We get together because we served together, we respect each other,” Waybright said as tears pooled in his eyes. “We have a bond from pretty rough situations and we miss our brothers who didn’t come home with us. It’s healing. Believe it or not, I’m crying but it’s healing.”
Whether it be fighting off old demons, addressing the hate they faced when coming home or fighting off survivor guilt, the men said there’s no place they’d rather be than together.
The reunions are not only for the men who came home but also their families and the families of those men who died in Vietnam.
Rick Brown has been the one who has found many of those families, many of whom who have found comfort in meeting those who knew their loved ones in their last days.
In 2007, Brown met Ernie Moore’s widow Candy at a reunion in Kansas City. Seven years later the two were married finding comfort and companionship in their shared connection.
Freeling said even the wives of the men have become close sharing birthday cards, regular phone conversations and outings together during the reunion events.
“We’d do anything for anybody,” Waybright said of the group. “We communicate constantly on the phone, in small groups. We have a website people are on almost every day, and we have a Facebook group. Without each other it would be even tougher.”