A little over six years ago, I found the VHPA, VHCMA, and VHFCN after searching without success for someone - anyone - who knew my brother, David, in Vietnam. I didn't know anything about what his month in Vietnam had been like, as he only wrote three letters home. In fact I didn't remember much about him - he left for Vietnam when I was seven years old. I didn't know what kind of aircraft he flew, or where, what caused it to crash, whether there were other aircraft involved or other survivors besides my brother, who died 12 days later. I didn't know exactly what his injuries were, didn't know the names of the two men who were killed in the crash, or what their positions were. I'd even have had to do a lot of digging to find the name of his unit. Like most families, we were told precious little back in 1969.
Those who know me know how far I have come with assistance from these groups.
I've found men who were flight school classmates of David's, and some who were in his unit, C Troop 1st of the 9th Cav, learned the specifics of the incident that took his life and the lives of two others, who finally have names: John Anderson and Edward Dennull. I have actually seen (and sat in!) a light observation helicopter, learned how they were doing tight right pedal turns that day, and how an unexploded 500# U.S. bomb that had been camouflaged blew up, causing the LOH to crash . . . and how the Cobra high bird above them called in the downed bird alarm, to which another LOH pilot responded, crashing his own aircraft going in due to the dense cover; and how that pilot, not seriously injured, helped put my brother on the litter that took David, conscious, to the 93rd Evac. hospital.
I have met several of the key people in David's short life, and grafted them into my own life, bridging a gap that took one brief, violent moment back in 1969 to form, but grew and grew over the decades following. I have come to know and love David's unit comrades as my own, his "big bird" pilot, his rescuer, his troop commander, his squadron commander, his best friend from flight school and Vietnam - all of whom I have met face to face. I keep moving closer to the center of the circle I've been closing in on for almost a decade.
Two weeks ago, I met the birth daughter that John Anderson, the aircraft commander in David's crash, never saw. Jeannie was adopted in 1969, at birth, and through a very unique set of circumstances, has come to the knowledge that her birth dad was John. She doesn't yet know who her birth mom is. Jeannie, her very wonderful and supportive husband Bobby, and their children Julie, Emily and Bradley, attended their first VHPA reunion and saw firsthand the camaraderie that is known only among Vietnam veterans.
The power of being in the presence of someone whose life was drastically changed in the same instant that mine was, thousands of miles away and decades ago, is incredible. Loss mourns loss. Being with Jeannie gave me the feeling of being very, very close to something that I lost long ago - not David, but what he lost back in 1969, when we lost him. We all lost two fine pilots and a gunner that day. But they lost more than we did. They lost all of us.
It's very strange to try and put into words - I can handle grieving for what's missing from my own life, but it's very difficult to come to grips with what was tragically ripped from David's. At reunions, I've been in the same room with men whose paths crossed his, and my heart is filled with the strangest sort of longing for those men. Many times I've asked myself how on earth one can possibly be in the same room with people, and at the same time miss them terribly, until the heart aches. There's no explanation for it.
The moment I learned their names, John Anderson and Ed Dennull became "mine." Being with John's birth daughter drew me closer to him in a way that I needed, and perhaps that Jeannie needed, too. We shared many of the same feelings as we talked at the banquet and afterwards, and I learned that she has had the feeling I can only describe as "missing things I never knew." Many quirks of life confirm that she is a small part of John. It was John's nephew's discovery of our VHFCN Family Contacts Committee that originally brought about our connection. I hope and pray that Jeannie is able to complete the picture by finding her birth mother.
It was an honor and privilege to fly in a helicopter over Las Vegas, together with Jeannie, on July 5 (my birthday), almost 33 years to the day that my brother and her dad were together in a helicopter for the last time. I won't forget that flight as long as I live. Nor will Jeannie, her daughter Julie, Bill Moeller or the other couple who was with us. (See photos!)
After the flight, we stood outside the Maverick Helicopters hangar, and Jeannie's husband Bobby Anderson (yes, she married and by coincidence got her birth name back!) took photos of us in front of the LOH hull that Lou "Rocket" Rochat had hauled in en route to Texas where he is going to renovate it. What a perfect backdrop.
Jeannie and I also saw, for the first time, photos of the site where John, David and Ed went down. John Powell, the high bird pilot, had brought them on his laptop and, with unit comrades crowded around, we saw the place where he saw his little bird go down in flames on 7-21-1969. It was not a good week for C Troop.
There were many other highlights of the reunion which deserve more comment but this is already too long. There wasn't a dry eye at the C Troop banquet where another "found" son, Lew Robinson, son of WO Bill Cahill also of C Troop (KIA 10-18-1970) told the story of finding his birth dad's family. Bill Cahill's nephew and niece, Rich and Andrea Cahill, were there to explain their amazement and gratitude at learning that Bill had left behind a son. They welcomed Lew home, and Lew was given a black Cav hat in honor of his dad.
The troop banquet also included a solemn Missing Man table and presentation with the names of all of our C Troop fallen on individual cards at each place . . . and the presentation of the famed [stolen] 94th Aerosquadron Restaurant flag to Linda Jones, patient wife of Walker, who had earlier threatened to cut Sam Elliott's signature out of the bottom of the flag. His signature was procured last November in Washington DC by some forthright and ingenious folks. Rumor has it she is sleeping with it instead of a sheet on the bed.
I also met several of you with whom I have communicated over the years, and putting a name with a face is a fantastic thing. I am so lucky and honored. I met Tim Horrell, a flight school classmate of David's in WORWAC 69-11. Another classmate, Wes Pearson, loaned me his WOC yearbook which I had never seen before because David must not have forked out the money to buy it! I got Happy Birthday sung into my hotel voice mail, not once but twice, by Linh Vo and family.
Saw some beloved familiar faces and some new ones including famous B Troop webmaster Loretta Stager, Doc Hyatt, Jack Mates, C Troopers Stephen Leischner, David Keel, Jack Washburne and lots of other first timers and reunion "veterans."
The Family Contacts table, near Gary Roush's KIA database, had almost constant oversight by committee member Jim McLaughlin. We had lots of inquiries and hope to make lots of new connections. I was terrifically pleased to see Sherry Leeper, sister of WO1 Wallace Leeper 48th AHC KIA 12-2-1967 there for her second reunion! She has become "little sister" to the Bluestars, and was there to lead Karen Bilbrey Edwards, widow of CPT Ed Bilbrey, 48 AHC KIA 3-11-1971 into the group. Kate LaCroix, daughter of 1LT William Terry Allen, A Co 4 Avn Bn 4 Inf Div KIA 12-4-1967 and her husband Mike and kids were there. What a pleasure to finally meet Kate and family as we have become close via email.
THE KIA FAMILIES IN ATTENDANCE AT THIS REUNION WERE:(There may have been more that I didn't know about and for that I apologize)
*Kate LaCroix, daughter of 1LT William Terry LaCroix A Co 4 Avn Bn 4 Inf Div KIA 12-4-1967
*Jeannie Anderson, daughter of WO1 John E. Anderson, C/1/9 CAV KIA 7-21-1969
*Rich & Andrea Cahill, nephew & niece of WO1 Bill J. Cahill, C/1/9 CAV KIA 10-18-1970
*Lew Robinson, son of WO1 Bill J. Cahill, C/1/9 CAV KIA 10-18-1970
*Sherry Leeper, sister of CW2 Wallace Leeper, 48 AHC KIA 12-2-1967
*Stephanie Peterson, sister of CPT Walter (Rick) Speare 119 AHC KIA 11-11-1966
*John Speare, brother of CPT Walter (Rick) Speare 119 AHC KIA 11-11-1966
*Suzanne LaFleche, sister of CPT Walter (Rick) Speare 119 AHC KIA 11-11-1966
*Harriet Speare, mother of CPT Walter (Rick) Speare 119 AHC KIA 11-11-1966
*Barbara Niemela, wife of CPT Walter (Rick) Speare 119 AHC KIA 11-11-1966
*David Zappini, brother of WO1 Joseph Vinnie Zappini 128 AHC KIA 6-4-1969
*Daniel Zappini, brother of WO1 Joseph Vinnie Zappini 128 AHC KIA 6-4-1969
*Dan Dillender, borther of SGT Bill Dillender, B/101 Avn 101 Abn KIA 3-20-1971
There are bonds among people who served together that transcend everyday life, that those reading this know very well. There also is a bond among people who weren't there, but whose lives and hearts were changed forever by what happened in Vietnam. Many of us KIA family members were "alone" with Vietnam, as I was, for a long time. Some still are. I can tell you, "Vietnam" is a big thing to be alone with; simply put, it's better when you aren't alone with it any longer. I've known this since 1996, the first time I ever met another sister who lost her brother in Vietnam, my dear friend and sis Susan Blaker. Unfortunately, Susan wasn't able to attend this year.
Attending reunions with buddies reaffirms our existence and worthiness, and our small place in the world and in history. For KIA families it also reaffirms the small place that our loved ones had in this world, and helps us realize what they did in Vietnam. In the eyes and the actions of those who survived, we see glimpses of the men our fallen may have become, had they lived. What an amazing thought - if they could only be here for even one more day! They can't be here, so a small handful of us are here instead, representing them as best we can.
There is no greater tribute than the warm welcome that we receive. I have a heart overflowing with thanks for everyone who played a part in welcoming me and the other families, and in making this past reunion such a significant experience for so many.
sister of WO1 David Kink C Trp 1/9th CAV KIA 8-3-1969
member of VHFCN Family Contacts Committee
Honorary Life Member VHPA
Associate Member VHCMA
Honorary Member 9th Cavalry Regiment
Honorary Life Member Bullwhip Squadron