HUNTSVILLE – After decades of suppressing memories from their time in Vietnam, a group of Vietnam War veterans reunited this week at Indian Lake and allowed themselves to revisit their memories from almost 50 years ago.
Robert Menz, of Sidney, Marc Bourque, of Kennebunkport, Maine, Ken Ottens, of Fulton, Illinois, and Len Weir, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, gathered at a house along Indian Lake that they rented from Sunday to Wednesday. It was the first time they had seen each other since serving together in 1970 and 1971 at Pr’Line Mountain in Vietnam.
“I successfully blocked it out for 40-some years,” Weir said of his time in Vietnam. “When Ken called me, it rattled my cage, and I started looking at pictures and albums that I hadn’t looked at for 45 years probably. But then when I thought about it, it’s the people that I missed, and I thought if I had the chance to get together with these guys I’ve got to do it.”
The four men also were able to Skype with others they had served with, including Mike Brogan, of Fall River, Massachusetts, Mike Penners, of Vancouver, Washington, and Jim Thomas, of Fort Worth, Texas.
“After a conversation or two on the phone and a day here, we’re almost back to where we were 50 years ago,” Ottens said Monday afternoon.
The reunion was more sweet than bitter, Menz said, but for a long time the group of veterans preferred to forget about their time in Vietnam. The American public didn’t approve of the war, which was a major factor in wanting to repress the memories.
“When we got out, nobody wanted to talk about it,” Menz said. “They didn’t want to see a G.I. It was a bad rap for us. And nobody liked the war, and it kind of got focused on the soldiers.
“One of the reasons that made it so easy for us to just shut it down is culturally we were pretty much forced to.”
When he returned home, Bourque said, the military advised him to wear civilian clothes while traveling in the United States instead of his Army uniform.
“We come home, and we were spit on,” he said. “We were yelled at. I was called a baby killer. And I never really shot my riffle at anybody, but I was classified a baby killer because I was in Vietnam.”
In recent years, Menz started to think about his time in the military and the people he served alongside. Remembering little pieces of information, he used the internet to track down some of them. And together they were able to piece together more details and found even more people.
“I got the first phone call, saw the name Bob Menz on my TV … Ohio,” Bourque said. “Who in the heck is that? My wife says, we don’t know anybody in Ohio. And then Bob left a message on our answering machine, and I couldn’t get out of the chair fast enough.”
During their reunion, the men caught up and talked about their families and their lives since leaving the service. They also shared stories and looked at pictures from their time in the U.S. Army Signal Corps on Pr’Line Mountain.
The United States Army had communication sites on the tallest mountains in Vietnam, including Pr’Line Mountain, and utilized tropospheric scatter communications – bouncing microwave signals with coded communications off the Earth’s atmosphere down to receivers across the country.
“Very high tech back then,” Menz said.
Just about all communications went through their mountain base, including verbal communications, teletype communications and Associated Press and United Press International reports. The Viet Cong even used the American equipment to amply signals.
“They were using our equipment for themselves to talk all over Vietnam,” Ottens said of the Viet Cong, adding that the United States military permitted it because the Americans could intercept the communications. “We didn’t know because we couldn’t understand Vietnamese, but someplace down the line they had interpreters that would listen in on it.”
Every few months, Ottens said, he was able to utilize spare channels to call his family back home in the United States. Menz also called home periodically.
“You guys never passed on that secret because I never knew that,” Bourque said.
To get in the Signal Corps, the men had to take an aptitude test to determine if they were qualified for the group. They then had at least 26 weeks of training.
“This group was a very elite group in the sense that it was a very critical job that we did, and most of the people, if not all the people, had some kind of electronic or electrical background as well as a lengthy training program,” Menz said.
They still were in a war zone, but the men said they felt relatively safe on the mountain.
“I’m thinking of probably every military site in Vietnam, we probably was on one of the best ones,” Ottens said. “I mean we was the furthest up in the air.”
The soldiers had Vietnamese maids on Pr’Line Mountain who were vetted by the military. At times the maids would warn the Americans about dangers and when to avoid traveling.
“They had their ear to the rail and knew when the VC was going to be an issue,” Menz said.
Prior to the Americans leaving Pr’Line Mountain, one of the maids said she was concerned the Viet Cong would murder them and their families for having assisted the United States military. Ottens visited Vietnam in 1994 and said those fears seemed to be confirmed.
“They all died mysteriously … stepped on a mine or drowned in the ocean,” he said. “These were mountain people. I can’t believe they would be going to the ocean.”
The Americans worry their time in Vietnam remains a threat to them almost 50 years later. They all were exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, which Menz said is causing his health problems today.
“The VA has now deemed me 70 percent disabled because of Agent Orange so there’s a part of Vietnam that was crippling to a lot of people over there then, but it still has an effect on a lot of people 50 years later,” he said.
Brogan, who booked the house rental along Indian Lake, planned to make the trip to Ohio but couldn’t because of health problems his friends fear could be connected to Agent Orange.
“None of us know when it might all of a sudden break out on us,” Ottens said.
While they worry about health problems that could surface, the men said they are grateful for having survived their time in Vietnam unlike thousands of Americans who died during the conflict.
“Almost half of our generation was lost,” Bourque said while fighting back tears.
“We lost 55,000 or more, who knows,” Ottens said. “It’s just too bad. And it didn’t do a nickel’s worth of good. That’s the problem. All the money spent. All the lives that were lost. It didn’t make one iota of difference.”
The United States should learn from the Vietnam War, Menz said, and think twice about getting in other conflicts.
“There’s so much to learn that we refuse to learn,” he said.
Though there are some painful memories, the veterans said they enjoyed their time piecing together old stories and reconnecting with long-lost friends. They’re hoping to organize more reunions in the future.
“We all were at the same place, we could tell about the same stories and what one forgets the other one remembers,” Ottens said.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 937-538-4824.