My uncle, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, once asked my father, a Korea combat vet, how he managed to rise to the rank of master sergeant during the heat of the conflict.
Dad’s answer was short and chilling: Process of elimination.
Like many men who served in combat, my father, who is now deceased, didn’t talk much about his war experiences. When asked a question about Korea, he would answer in a respectful but terse way that didn’t invite follow-ups.
Sometimes I would eavesdrop on his long-distance phone conversations with his Army buddies who would call him on special occasions or to report a fresh death in the ranks. It amazed me how 30, even 40 years after the war they still seemed bonded, having spent only a few months together as young men on the frozen battlefields of Korea. It was as if they spoke a different language, drawing from a vocabulary of shared hardships and alphanumeric Army talk.
Wartime friendships, some say, only grow stronger as combat veterans age and grapple with what, for many, were the defining years of their lives.
Last week, I conversed with two Vietnam War veterans who have become friends after meeting at recent reunions of the 221st Reconnaissance Airplane Company, a unit that spent seven years patrolling the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam. The unit, which was known for flying L-19 or 0-1 Cessna Bird Dog airplanes, had its own monument dedicated earlier this year at Fort Rucker, Ala.
One of these men you may know, the other you almost certainly won’t.
Dr. Don Loftis is a former Hamilton County schools superintendent. Hank Collins is a retired Alabama salesman and banker who has just published a collection of historical-fiction stories “Eyes Over the Delta,” which is available at Amazon.com and is based on his experiences flying with the 221st in Vietnam.
Loftis, also a former 221st pilot, alerted me about Collins’ book. I asked him how the two men — who never actually met in Vietnam — seem to have formed a durable friendship in recent years.
“… We just revel in the fact that we’re still alive,” Loftis said. “It’s pure jubilation.”
He explained, “I have often wondered why there’s a feeling of closeness between people in combat, and a lot that is the obvious fact that you are depending upon each other for your lives.
“… Those who shared the same mission, and were in the same outfit or similar units, have the same feeling of gratitude and relief. … It’s just impossible to describe in a way that anyone who did not have similar experiences can even begin to understand.”
With that introduction, I read Collins’ book, which is full of visceral images of Vietnam: the war-maimed children of unions between U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese prostitutes; the animated prayers of relatives on the home front; the chilling memories of pilots watching death unfold from treetop level in the cockpits of small airplanes.
Collins said that for decades he didn’t talk much about Vietnam, but the beginning of reunions of the 221st Reconnaissance Airplane Company in 2007 kindled his need to write about his war memories.
“It’s cathartic,” says Collins, 74, of these company reunions. “There’s no putting on airs with these people. You know they were just as scared as you were.”
The truth is, not all his memories of Vietnam are bad, Collins says. “You were young, nothing hurt,” Collins laughs. “In some ways it was a good time in your life.”
Meanwhile, America’s ambivalence about the war seems to have given way to a new-found respect for Vietnam veterans, especially from the wave of American soldiers still returning from two protracted, 21st-century conflicts.
And Collins figures it’s about time that healing happened.
“Any nation that forgets the ones who protected it,” he says, “is ultimately doomed.”
Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.
Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...