A family found: War veterans reunite

Family forged by war in Vietnam

Photo contributed by Rick Brown Rick Brown is shown on his 19th birthday in the Cambodian jungle on May 4, 1970, holding a Chinese SKS rifle captured in a recent battle. Brown said his fellow soldiers surprised him with a pound cake.

It seems likely that few of the more than 100 battle-weary soldiers of Bravo Company were thinking about how they might stay in touch after they were sent home from Vietnam in mid-1970. The prolonged value of their shared experience would not become clear until decades later.

The unit began to reassemble thanks in part to the reach of the internet. Rick Clanton, one of the members, established a website and began searching for his comrades in December 2001. The first reunion took place two years later.

The next one will take place in Marietta, Sept. 12-14, marking 50 years since the group was assembled in preparation for war in 1969. More than 100 people are expected to attend, including veterans of Bravo Company, friends and family, among them surviving family members of the 18 men killed in combat during the company’s time in Vietnam.

The group has met annually for the past 16 years, and last held a reunion in Marietta in 2009, chosen in part because it is the hometown of Capt. Jim Waybright, the company commander, who now lives in Williamstown.

“We were overseas in Vietnam and Cambodia from January 1970 to May 1970, and we lost 18 very good men,” Waybright said Thursday. “Many of the widows and survivors attend, they’re all part of the Bravo Company family. We were close. We didn’t necessarily train together, go over together or come back together, but since 2002, we’ve spent a lot of time together.”

Photo contributed by Rick Brown Members of Bravo Company assemble for a group photo during an annual reunion in Marietta in 2009. The unit, along with family members and relatives of survivors of men killed in action, will hold another Marietta reunion in September.

Waybright said the camaraderie of shared experiences helps ease the trauma of painful memories.

“For most of our men, our best healing is when we’re together,” he said. “We lived like animals over there.”

Ben Currin now lives in Mount Airy, N.C. — the hometown of actor Andy Griffiths and nicknamed Mayberry because of its resemblance to the bucolic fictional town where Griffiths was sheriff – but in 1970 he was part of Bravo Company when it was sent into the rugged Vietnam central highlands and Cambodia.

“We didn’t have a base camp, our company was detached from the rest of the division,” he said. “We were away from all humanity. It wasn’t just the enemy, it was the weather, the monsoon rains, insects, snakes, the freezing cold air at night, we even had a tiger in our camp once. The elements were worse than the enemy. We’d have to burn leeches off our skin every morning.”

The men for the most part were young, and Currin said every day seemed like the end of the world.

“But we had each other, we sit around now and laugh and joke about, make the best of it, and at the same time shed a tear for those who didn’t make it,” he said.

Waybright said every reunion is highlighted by a memorial service for the 18 men in the company who didn’t come back from the war.

Among them was Lt. Leslie Sabo.

A researcher affiliated with the 101st Airborne came across the paperwork nominating Sabo for the Congressional Medal of Honor in the division archives nearly 40 years after Sabo was killed in action in Cambodia. The application had never been processed.

On May 16, 2012, the Bravo Company family was invited to the White House, where President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to Sabo’s widow, Rose. Sabo, the son of Austrian immigrant parents who moved to the U.S. in the 1940s to escape communism, shielded a comrade from a grenade blast during a battle in Cambodia, and despite being wounded charged an enemy bunker although his weapon had no ammunition. He held only a grenade, took fire on the way to the bunker and threw the grenade into it. He died of his wounds.

The Bravo Company family in some ways felt vindicated by that event.

“It was an unbelievable trip, we were given a standing ovation in the White House, and later when we toured the Pentagon,” Currin said. “None of us heard from each other for a few days after that, the emotion of it was so intense, it was like something actually happened to our bodies, we couldn’t take it.”

The United States that Bravo Company returned to in 1970 was a socially and politically torn place, divided by supporters and opponents of the war,with the veterans caught in a no-man’s-land with a framework of discourse that didn’t encourage people to make the distinction between the political forces that caused the war and the unfortunate young men who had to fight it. It was not a place where military veterans came home to parades or honors, except from their own.

“Most of the people in this unit came home from Vietnam and got out of the Army, went back to school, got a job, a wife, and all that time went through post-traumatic stress. Things got pretty bad, and we weren’t too welcome,” Currin recalled. “I didn’t have to endure that. I stayed in the military another 22 years.”

When he retired from the military, the stark contrast of civilian life in the 1980s hit home, he said.

“As a Vietnam vet, in the military I was admired, looked up to,” he said. “But those who went out of the service, they were looked down on. I felt like I was making that major adjustment the rest had made in the 1970s.”

He first saw the website set up by Clanton in February 2003. He saw photos, recognized some of the names and decided to go to the first reunion to meet the men he hadn’t seen for more than 30 years.

“I pulled up in the parking lot and froze, just sat there,” he said. “Then I saw Captain Jim (Waybright) with three or four guys walking by. I shivered and thought, ‘I can’t take this,’ but then I thought, ‘I’m here, let’s do this.'”

His company, to his relief, had been transformed from a group of rowdy 18, 19, and 20-year-olds into a humble and reverent gathering of war veterans.

“Now, we’re so much like a family, we’ve grown so close, helping each other and making sure we’ve got each other’s backs covered,” he said. “We’re just as close, if not closer, than we were 50 years ago.”

Rick Brown was the youngest in the unit, nicknamed ‘Rick the Kid.’ He marked his 19th birthday in Cambodia, and remembers the men presented him with a poundcake. After becoming re-engaged with Bravo Company more than 30 years later, he worked tirelessly to find other members and the families of the fallen, combing records, visiting cemeteries, even returning to Vietnam in 2011. He took a photo of Hill 474, remembering the brutal fighting there.

“My platoon was ambushed there on Jan. 28, 1970. We lost Lt. John Shaffer, Frank Madrid, Peter Guzman and Steve Dile,” he said.

At the reunion in 2007, Brown met his future wife, the widow of one of his fallen comrades.

“Candy and I will be married five years on April 22. Her husband was killed in Cambodia,” he said.

Out of great harm can come great good. The men and women of the Bravo Company family look after one another.

Currin remembers when he was going through North Carolina on I-95, riding his motorcycle to a reunion at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, he passed an exit for a village named Whitacres that unearthed a memory of someone he’d served with from that community who had been killed in action.

“I turned around at a gas stop and went back to see if I could find anyone who knew that guy we lost. It was a real small town, and I found someone who knew who he was and took me to his family’s house,” Currin said. “Most of us have turned out pretty well, we’ve got homes, families, extras, some of us have got boats even, by good luck and the grace of God. But this family, they had nothing then during the war and they’ve still got nothing, just dirt poor.”

At the reunion, he said, somebody had the idea they might help them financially.

“There were five brothers and a sister, and we gave them $1,000 each,” he said. “Talk about tears and emotions when we gave that to them. They say good things happen to people who do good things.”

Waybright said the company in a way are getting parts of their lives back.

“I look at Vietnam, and I see young men cheated out of their adolescence and their young adulthood, and this gives them a chance to recoup some of the things they were cheated out of,” he said.

Brown said that with his traveling and research, the Bravo Company family considers him a sort of point man but he gives Waybright, who is known for modesty and humility, the credit for being the unifying element.

“A final thing about Captain Jim, he praises all the men of his company, but he’s the guy who needs to be praised. A lot of us wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him,” Brown said.

Bravo Company

•Part of 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.

•Deployed to Vietnam central highlands and Cambodia, January-May 1970.

•Losses in battle: 18 men.

•Annual reunion: Marietta, Sept. 12-14.

Source: Times research.