Once the passengers ahead of me finished fumbling with stowing their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins and sitting down, I at last reached my aisle seat near the center of the plane. I sat down, bucked in and said "hello" to the young man sitting in the seat next to me. He said hello back. I then closed my eyes in preparation for my normal routine of falling asleep even before the plane leaves the ground. Today was different, however. I was too excited to sleep.
Forty-two years ago, I met some exceptional young men. We were all part of a rifle company humping the jungles of Vietnam. In a matter of hours I would be seeing 18 of them at a reunion in Myrtle Beach. I know they would have aged, but in my mind's eye they are still the brave young warriors who did their duty in a nasty war they didn't totally understand. And through it all, bonded together as brothers, placing their lives in each other's hands. I was proud to be one of them.
When the plane reached cruising altitude and the pilot finished welcoming us aboard, I began a conversation with the young man. His name was Jason, an engineer from Atlanta, who was heading home following a business trip to Los Angeles. When he asked me where I was going, I told him about meeting up with some men I served with in Vietnam. "We read about Vietnam in high school," he said, "but I didn't learn much. There were only four paragraphs about it in our history book." I was amazed. How could a 10-year war that changed the United States in so many ways rate only four paragraphs? I decided to tell Jason as much about the hows and whys of the war as best I understood them and what I observed from my ringside seat.
When I finished, Jason wanted to know how the men felt about the war? "They didn't want to be there. They were a long way from home in a hot, dangerous place full of bad smells, bugs and snakes. Every step they took, they didn't know if it would be their last, " I answered. "Yet in spite of all the uncertainly, the camaraderie we built among each other is what kept most of us going. We had each other's back."
A flight attendant asking us what we'd like to drink interrupted our conversation. I got some water and Jason got a coke. Sipping our drinks, we both fell into silence. Soon Jason closed his eye, perhaps contemplating what he had just learned about the Vietnam War from an eyewitness. Me, I stared in the nothingness, lost in thought about the reunion and how it would not have happened without a website exclusively for veterans.
The site, TogetherWeServed.com, is a private website where former, retired and active duty men and women reconnect and bond. It's also a place where I met some really great people.
The first time I signed on, I was surprise how easy it was to navigate and within a couple of hours, I found six old army buddies. When someone becomes a member there are encouraged to fill out their profile page with as much personal information about their military and personal history. There are places for unit assignments, awards, schools attended and military and personal photos.
To capitalize on this powerful search capacity, I filled out my profile as completely as possible and as time passed, a whole lot of old army friends contacted me, with the greatest number being those I served with in Vietnam.
After months of exchanging emails and messages over the TWS message center with my Vietnam comrades, the idea of holding a reunion began to take shape. There was a lot of enthusiasm and the beginning of some planning. The final shove, however, came from somewhere else.
One day, I got a TWS message from an unknown veteran. He wrote he had been a member of our company when it arrived in Vietnam in 1965 and for the past eight years, the original members had been meeting for reunions every two years. He wanted to open up the next reunion to be held in Myrtle Beach to all veterans from all years who served in the company. I wrote back we would be there and got busy getting the word out.
Reflecting on how it all came about, I was struck by the versatility of TWS. It not only brings together long-lost friends, it's a national archive where millions of stories and photos are posted, and with each, a lasting legacy of America's military heritage.
Whenever I get the chance, I like to search for photos and stories posted by vets who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. It never fails to amaze me the detail some of the veterans have posted. It is better than a history book because it's personal and because these living, breathing "scrapbooks" come straight from the gut and the heart. The postings by friends and relatives honoring the men and women who paid the supreme sacrifice are the ones that get me the most.
Inspired by the firsthand accounts of historical wars and battles by others, I began making a detailed history of Vietnam. So far I've posted over 200 photos and detailed stories, beginning with the French occupation. It's still a work in progress, but eventually it will have all major battles and end with a modern Vietnam, one of our trading partners. What Vietnam veteran would have ever dreamed of the happening?!
Somewhere in my mental praising of why I love Together We Served, I must have fallen asleep. The next thing I felt was the plane leveling off and the pilot telling us we would be landing in 15 minutes. The head flight attendant got on the horn with some gate numbers for some connecting flights and thanked us for flying their airline.
The plane landed at the Atlanta and parked at a gate. Walking off the plane I said goodbye to Jason and headed for the gate my flight for Myrtle Beach would leave. Two hours later the commuter plane landed. I called the hotel where I would be staying and where the reunion was being held. In a matter of minutes, a van picked me up.
The excitement and anticipation was growing inside as I realized that within minutes, I would be coming face-to-face with some of my combat buddies after more than four decades. They understood better than anyone else about what Vietnam meant because they were there, they shared in the experience too. No doubt Shakespeare had us in mind when he wrote in Henry V, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
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