Recondo Reunion

(Written May 2, 2004) I’ve not paid much attention to veteran’s stuff. In fact I had never even read a Viet Nam book until a guy in grad school called me a “boonie rat” - a term I hadn’t heard for a long time. I learned he had gotten it from a book he was reading, which became the first of many that I eventually read. I finally got around to joining a vet group for my unit maybe 15 years ago, mainly to get the newsletter and membership list, and have very sporadically made contact with a couple of guys over the years. But mostly I figured I had “moved on”. Vet groups were fine for those who had not been able to move on and needed the support - but what did that have to do with me.

Scanning my old photos and wanting to share them became part of what got me to more actively looking up some of the guys. When I got the announcement, last fall, for the reunion of my Recondo platoon - it got my attention. That was probably the best chance I would ever have for seeing some of the guys I had been with. Even so I almost blew it off. But, because of the photos, I had been in recent contact, and I knew at least two or three of the guys would be there. And Jean really encouraged me to check it out. I’ve got so many things I want to do with my time - but OK, it’s only a weekend - it might even be fun.

I knew for sure the guy I wrote about earlier (he helped me do some remodeling this past fall) - Tom “Beetle” Bailey - was going.

I had recently (a few years ago) made contact with another guy in my squad, Terry “Dirtball” Stanosheck. In retrospect, I have no idea how he was any more of a “dirtball” than the rest of us - we were all filthy. And I’m sure he stood in the rain and took Bayonet Baths (scraping off the dirt with the edge on a bayonet) as often as the rest of us. But somehow, at that age, you get a name and it sticks. He carried the machine gun, although on days when he was not in the field, or not able, I would carry it (I didn’t care for the extra weight, but I liked its reliability - something the M16 didn’t have). The guy I “found” a few years ago impressed me from our first conversation on the phone. His wife was in the terminal stages of a fatal disease, and he was caring for her at home. There was no self-pity on his part, nor would he accept any from anyone else, although it was clear that what he was doing was extremely difficult. He faced it with a sort of matter-of-fact calm serenity that I’m sure was tested anew every day. One conversation we were having ended abruptly when he heard her calling him and he had to go help her. She died within the last year or so, and he was starting to find his own life again. He said he was definitely coming and I was really looking forward to meeting who this guy had become.

Then there was Eric Sanders, the black radio operator that had been behind me when we hit the booby trap. Although I was closest, and got the most shrapnel of any of the 3 of us that got hit, he had the worst consequences. One piece went through his throat and hit his spine. He has been in a wheelchair ever since. I’ve talked to him a couple of times, but it was never clear what capabilities he still had. When I asked him once he sort of quickly mumbled something about “partial use” of one or both arms - it didn’t sound like he was comfortable talking about it so I dropped it. I have heard he was once on the cover of Disabled American Veteran’s magazine. He, and others, told me he attended “all the reunions”, so I expected to see him there. I sent him an email to let him know I would be there, but I didn’t get a response, which I usually do.

A really key person for me was Jim “Doc” Rizzi. A good looking Italian kid with a Bronx accent, he was one of those warm-hearted guys you can’t help but take an instant liking to. He and I were pretty close over there, and had talked now and then over the years, although we hadn’t seen each other since then. He was also the medic who patched me up, shot me full of morphine, and put me on the medevac chopper. I sensed a bit of reluctance on his part - he was always very friendly when we talked, but he never seemed to follow through on returning calls, etc. I figured I’d have to keep bugging him to get him to go, but was happily surprised on the second phone call to find that he was coming to the reunion. We later learned that his wife had a lot to do with that decision, apparently giving Doc even more of a shove in that direction than Jean had had to give me.

Another guy I had been close to was Frank W. He was the only guy I had seen back in the states, with the exception of a visit to Sanders at the VA hospital upon our return. I also saw Frank on that same visit, as he had had a relapse of malaria. I had with me a girl I was dating and a friend of hers, and we pulled off an Afternoon Escape Operation - smuggling in civilian clothes, walking out with Frank for an afternoon of beer, pizza, and carousing, and smuggling him back in just in time for his evening meds. He even ended up marrying the friend. But about 10 or 15 years ago I tried to contact him again and his wife (different one) would always say he was not around or make some excuse. He finally wrote me a letter saying Viet Nam had been too heavy on his mind for too long, and please don’t contact him anymore. And I hadn’t.

But about a month ago I was driving through central Virginia on the way to a test facility, and I saw, on a mileage sign, the name of the tiny town that was Frank’s mailing address. So that’s where he lives I thought to myself briefly, and then forgot about it. A little while later, crossing the James River, I was thinking this was a really pretty place and wanted to find a place to pull off across the river to take a picture. Wouldn’t you know it, but the only pull off was a side road leading to that same town. Call it a Cosmic Joke, or whatever, I took the turn, and almost immediately came upon the post office. Ok, Ok. I went in and asked them if the address was still good. The postmaster said Frank had moved, but after he learned that I was a fellow vet he gave me some more information, from which I was able to track him down in the phone book. I took the chance and called him, telling him only that I thought he might like to know about what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He asked me to send him the information about the reunion, which I did. So I had high hopes he would show up, although I decided that one contact was as far as I wanted to push things.

I have a group photo of my “fire team” (half of a squad) - in it is Terry, Doc, Frank, myself, and Bob Rera. Bob was killed in a firefight, but it looked like a good possibility that all the rest of us would be at the reunion, and of course I immediately started hoping we could re-create that photo 37 years later.


The Recondo Reunion was held in Melbourne Florida on the same weekend as a much larger VN Vet reunion. Ours was very small - 28 guys from the old platoon, plus wives, girl friends, etc. It was very informal, with the only scheduled event being the Saturday night Banquet. The rest of the time there was a room setup as a gathering place from which people came and went. And most of us went over to the big reunion for at least a few hours.

The big reunion was packed with thousands of people (somewhere I heard the number 100,000) - both vets and visitors. It was held in a large park and some of the guys who were there at night (after the “tourists” left) said it was like a little Woodstock, complete with live music. Lots of old military clothing, patches and medals, and not a few Harleys. There was even a Viet Nam Vet Motorcycle Club with quite a few members in attendance. Also lots of booths and impromptu memorials and Viet Nam-era military equipment. Probably the most impressive memorial was the Agent Orange Quilt, which was actually a whole bunch of quilts, all orange. Each 12 inch square was a different Vet or story that someone had contributed. Lots of stories of cancer deaths, birth defects and destroyed health. Very touching.

One of the first guys I ran into when we arrived at the hotel was “Doc”. He had told me he had lost a lot of hair and gained a fair amount of weight, so I thought I would recognize him. But I didn’t until he came over to introduce himself. He was still the great guy I remembered, and he, his wife, and Jean also bonded very quickly. The four of us were never too far apart the whole weekend.

Tom was there and I was able to present him with a set of fixed up prints from the old, faded photos of his we had scanned when he visited last fall. Terry had sent in his check and had even made plans to share a room with another guy, but he hadn’t shown up and nobody had heard from him. As the weekend went on numerous attempts were made to contact him, without success.. Frank had not registered, which was disappointing, but not surprising. And nobody had heard from Eric either..

While Tom and Doc were the only two guys there I had known in Viet Nam, new friendships were easily formed. There was a sense of coming home to a family you didn’t even know you had. At one point Jean started talking about her memories as a kid, seeing all the old geezer-vets from the Big War. And how she had just looked around and was struck by the realization that We Are Them. Yep. Bald heads, white hair, a couple of canes, old Army jackets and other old military gear.

Some of us were still closer to the war than others. A few had jackets full of VN insignia and even things like business cards with their old infantry specialty printed on them. The stories were fascinating, and sometimes tragic. The saddest one of the weekend was the guy whose son had followed in is footsteps and then been killed in Iraq a few months ago. He was, of course, aware that had he not been proud of his own service, then it was likely his son would still be alive today. But should he have denied or rejected his own experiences all of his life to possibly save his son? No good answers to that one that I could see…

One of the most amazing stories I heard was from “Buffalo Bob” and another guy. They were telling how they were part of the first group to form the Recondo platoon, back in ‘65. They recalled one story that was obviously very much still with them today. There were a lot of conversations going on, and I missed some details of this one, but they had been right on the Laos border. The battalion commander told them he did not expect to see them again, as they were going into an area where no American had ever been (Laos - this was quite early in the war), and he would not be able to give them air or artillery support (it turned out later that they did get artillery support). A group of six of them walked into a clearing with cooking fires going, and then they heard sounds all around them in the jungle. They realized they were smack in the middle of a large NVA encampment. Here is where I lost some of the details, but the snatches I heard were about spending a terror-filled night silently crawling out of that situation…

The women lost no time in forming their own circle. I can only imagine all the things that were discussed, although Jean did tell me about some of them. Partly they were observing the guys forming up in little groups of two or three, and telling the stories of their own guys and how they had come back (or not). And much of it was their own stories. Jean said some of the stories/lives had been/were incredibly hard, at other times I saw them all laughing so hard they nearly fell out of their chairs.

The only organized event of the weekend was the banquet, and even that was not very organized. One of the guys that organized the event got up and said a few words. A former young officer, who was now an active duty General, made an appearance and told us how the days with our unit were some of the most cherished of his whole career. He hardly looked like a general, as he was dressed in civilian clothes and looked like a middle-aged business man - but we later learned he had a personal security detail of a couple of armed guards posted outside the room.

The most amazing part of the whole weekend was the ‘testimonials’ after the general spoke. The floor was opened to whoever had something they wanted to say. These were not planned speeches - I got the impression that no one who spoke had planned to do so. But once it started more and more guys came forward. Many of these guys were not polished speakers and were not comfortable speaking in front of a group. But they had emotions bubbling out of them that they needed to share. Many got so choked up they couldn’t finish. Doc was one of those. I was surprised (I think he was too) when he got up to speak. He talked of how difficult it had been for him to decide to come to the reunion, but now he realized it was the best thing he could have done. The room was absolutely silent as each guy spoke, with everyone paying rapt attention. All who spoke were rewarded with hearty applause.

I feel the same way Doc did - I almost didn’t come, but now I can’t imagine having missed it. I’m sure it will not be my last reunion with those guys.


Tuesday night we got a phone call from Doc. Terry had died of a heart condition two days before the reunion.. So we never will be able to recreate that photo. But there is already a small reunion planned - several of us are going to meet to deliver some of Terry’s things to The Wall in DC.