A reunion of Vietnam War veterans who served in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade continues in Buffalo this week. They'll take in the sights, sounds, and even some tastes of Western New York. But to many of these veterans, the annual reunion brings a renewed opportunity to bond - and heal from old wounds, some of which are unseen.
They began arriving in Buffalo on Monday and by mid-morning were enjoying breakfast at the Buffalo Grand hotel, where the reunion is being hosted. At least two of the veterans who served in the 199th are from Buffalo, including Jack Thielmann, who invited WBFO to mingle among the visitors.
"We're really glad we were able to push Buffalo," he said. "We had to politick a little to get the reunion here in Buffalo. It comes to different cities every year."
Thielmann quickly brought forward one of his comrades, Bud Gardner of Cumberland, Rhode Island, and the two shared their tale of how they got injured together on November 7, 1968. They were preparing to move out of an area but first, as Gardner explained, they needed to dispose of a bomb that was placed in a landing zone which U.S. forces anticipated using at a later date.
They carried out that task but on the way back, according to Gardner, they came across an enemy bunker they had previously destroyed but appeared to be in a stage of reconstruction. They went in to investigate.
"One of the guys tripped a booby trap. He was killed. I was blown up and Jack was blown up," said Gardner, who suffered shrapnel injuries from the blast. "I spent from November 7 to early January in the hospital, and I'm still walking."
Thielmann added to the story, explaining why Gardner is lucky to be alive today.
"I remember as platoon leader, we used to have to wear flak jackets. They were really heavy and cumbersome, and it was a hundred degrees (in the field)," he said. "Bud would never wear his. I got tired of telling him and the guys to 'wear your flak jackets.' But that particular morning, he borrowed a flak jacket from someone else."
The two shared a laugh about their tale and how Gardner's decision to wear the jacket that day spared him from more severe injuries. Many in attendance have their own tales of battles, of injuries and the ordeals they endured in the field.
"These guys here, if you hear some of the stories, you'll be surprised what they went through to be here today," said Martin Gomez, a veteran of the 199th LIB from Chicago. "But somebody's got to do it and I always say, if somebody's got to go to war, send me."
Like many other Vietnam veterans, they brought home both open wounds and hidden ones which, for many years, they kept to their own selves. This was before people became familiar with the phrase "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."
David Drews of Minneapolis, Minnesota is a Purple Heart recipient. He admits he still gets nightmares, and he still gets triggered by loud banging sounds, including firecrackers. He revealed just two examples of how he is still affected.
"I was just at a track meet for a relative of mine, and they shot the gun off. I think I jumped about two feet. My wife had to grab me and everybody looked around," Drews said. "We were down in Florida this past spring and a big lightning and thunder went. I went to the floor in a restaurant."
Some have found themselves battling with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs for medical coverage. Gary Underiner of Chicago says the VA has denied his coverage for PTSD on the grounds they consider him mentally healthy. He agrees that he feels fine but insists that anyone who was involved in a combat setting brings home some degree of trauma.
Underiner says he has also battled with the VA over coverage for exposure to Agent Orange. While he wouldn't disclose specific health problems, Underiner says he has them, and he links their causes to exposure to the defoliant, which was later found to be linked to cancers, heart disease and Parkinson's Disease.
"Our area of operation was treated with Agent Orange," he said. "I know I was exposed to it, one way or the other, either directly walking through the jungle and it fell on me from the trees, or getting into the water systems."
Coming together with fellow veterans has given many the opportunity not only to bond and recall shared experiences but help each other move forward with their lives. Many veterans revealed they only more recently opened up with loved ones about their war experiences.
Wives of veterans in attendance also take the opportunity to bond. Susan Pollich of Long Island is in attendance with her husband, Eddie. She says her husband remained silent about Vietnam for years but more recently began sharing some of what he lived through.
She recalled stress and suffering in her own right while Eddie was away for two years, how his father - a World War II veteran - wept as he left for duty, concerned for his safety. And, she recalled the difficulty Eddie faced upon coming home.
"Old friends, that we're no longer friends with anymore, they thought he was stupid for going," she said. "They thought 'you were the dumb one who got caught,' who didn't stay in college, didn't get the deferments and things like that. It was really, really difficult. It was difficult. He had a very tough adjustment when he came back."
But reconnecting with old war buddies, Pollich suggested, has helped her husband. Sydney Flame, a veteran and resident of Colorado, also recognizes the value of reuniting with former unit mates.
"It's good to have that support," he said. "They're there to help you. I'm glad for my wife, because she helps me all the time. She likes coming to the reunions like this because she meets with other wives and talks to them."
In addition to wives, many veterans brought children and grandchildren to Buffalo for this annual reunion. The week started with a solemn and emotional ceremony, during which 745 names were read and displayed on a monitor. They were the names of fellow 199th LIB members who were killed in action. Several youth were in the audience.
"We try to make it friendly for them and they get a lot out of it," said Richard Masters of Ventura, California. "For instance, we'll do our memorial service, which is almost sacred to us. I've asked the kids and the kid have come up later and said what an event that they got to share and witness."
"I can't think of the word I want to use but it's a healing process," said Hugh Foster, the current president of the 199th Infantry Association. "Few people come away from this and say they're not coming back. Most of them really get an opportunity to get in touch with feelings they haven't shared or haven't had for a long, long time. It's a healing process we go through here."
About an hour after WBFO interviewed Foster, he could be seen in a meeting room where a bar, snacks and doughnuts were available to arriving guests. It was there and then he found the word he was looking for.
"Cathartic," he said.