ROCK SPRINGS, Wyo. — Laid out on the table were memories. Several patches, a Russian pistol in its brown leather holster, an old map of Vietnam and many, many photos — all memories six men brought with them to Rock Springs, to share and remember the time they spent together in Vietnam fighting a war a lifetime ago.
Jerry Lenox, David Uhlenhake, Ernie Guthrie, Bill Woznick, Bill Rossetti and Paul Steinmetz had not seen each other for 46 years, not since 1971 and their time with the 23rd Infantry Division, Delta Company, 196th Brigade, 2nd Battalion, in Vietnam. They fell out of touch after the Vietnam War, each veteran going his own way, each dealing with the demons brought home from a small country a world away.
But reunite they did, thanks to a three-year effort by Jerry Lenox and his wife Donna Lenox to find the members of the 23rd Infantry Division. The decision to meet in Rock Springs was made after learning that Rossetti would not be able to travel, and they gathered in July at American Legion Archie Hay Post 24.
The men looked at the photos together and talked about the experiences they shared. It was a quiet meeting, not emotional except for a few choked words and a few tears brimming in the eye but not overflowing. These men had been brothers in arms, and their memories were forged in fire, creating a bond that requires composure and quietness to fully understand.
They know what they went through and they share the experience daily, no matter the distance.
So many years ago in Vietnam Jerry Lenox wrote a letter. In this letter were the names of his division members. He said he asked them to write down all their names because they were ordered into a valley — Antenna Valley — and the rumor was it would not end well. Lenox wanted the list just in case.
Lenox sent the letter to his mother who, unbeknownst to him, eventually stored it away in a steel box.
Fast forward to 2014. Lenox found the letter still in the steel box, after his mother passed away. He vowed to try and contact all people who signed their names to that letter.
Lenox began with Terry Mezzacasa, who was his close friend in Vietnam. He tracked Mezzacasa down only to learn he had passed away.
He then located Steinmetz in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was glad to hear he was still kicking.
The third person he sought out was Paul Thompson; finding out he, too, had passed away, Lenox became too emotional to continue.
His wife Donna took up the reins. She continued the search, eventually tracking down 24 soldiers of the 23rd Infantry Division, 12 of whom had passed away by that time.
When the reunion was planned, some said they could not come. Donna explained many of these veterans still have a hard time with their memories, and she was glad to have the six who did say they would attend.
“Several members didn’t come because the memories are so painful,” she said. “Many have terrible post-traumatic stress disorder, even now, so many years later.”
STRUGGLING WITH THE PAST
Steinmetz offered a glimpse into their life in Vietnam, which in turn explains the struggles they have all had to face once they returned to the United States. Even now, their memories haunt them.
Their battalion was what the military called a swing battalion, Steinmetz explained. This meant the battalion was sent where extra help was needed, and the battalion served in such capacities as blocking agents and search and destroy. Steinmetz said his battalion was sent most anywhere, from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) which at that time divided North Vietnam from South Vietnam to the division headquarters at Chu Lai near the east coast to the mountains in between.
“This put us in a lot of unusual circumstances,” he said. “This was a highly-decorated battalion; the battalion fought at the Tet Offensive (in 1968), and it had a reputation.”
Steinmetz recalled his first days with the company. He said he and several of the others in the room got there after the company lost an entire platoon in a helicopter crash. He remembers that Guthrie was the only one left after that crash and it was particularly hard for him since he remembered all the men who died.
Steinmetz credits getting a job in a plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, with helping him deal with his memories upon his return to the states. He said there was another veteran who worked there with him, and the two would talk about their experiences; he believes being able to talk about it helped him through that first year back home.
Donna Lenox said Jerry still will cry out in the night with his bad dreams and struggles with PTSD and his memories.
Woznick said there are some memories he simply can’t — or will not — remember.
Donna Lenox added that all but one of the battalion members she has contacted has some malady that stems from the time they served in Vietnam, ranging from PTSD to a myriad of other physical ailments. Of the 12 that have passed away, three died from Agent Orange and one died “tragically” at the age of 34, she said.
Not all of their memories from that time are difficult to face. While none can be described as happy, several of the memories are bittersweet, some even funny, in the telling.
Guthrie held a photo of himself with his arm around a Vietnamese child. Guthrie said the company would periodically have an orphaned child in tow until a safer place would be found for the child. The child in the photo came to them after his company was taking fire and a village in the area was completely destroyed.
“The only person left alive in that village was this little boy,” he said. “He stayed with us for three days, and he would sleep next to me. He eventually went to an orphanage. Many did.”
Guthrie said there was a lot of collateral damage like that in the Vietnam War.
Another story was told by Woznick. He recalled one mission where they ended up jumping from the helicopters into a rice paddy. He said most rice paddies would be filled knee-deep with water and the rice plants.
“Well I jumped — right into a shell hole eight feet deep! Down I went, straight to the bottom,” he laughed.
Steinmetz said Woznick’s helmet floated for a second on top of the water, before it too sunk below the surface. Because of the weight of his pack and other equipment, he had to be pulled out, Woznick added.
They all had a good chuckle from that memory.
THE ROCK SPRINGS CONNECTION
Bill Rossetti is the Rock Springs connection in this group of six. He said he was born and raised here and of course came back to his roots after his service in Vietnam. He worked at Jim Bridger Power Plant for 35 years, starting in 1975 and retiring in 2010.
“I have lived here all my life,” he said.
Rossetti said he was “sort of shocked” when Donna Lenox first contacted him. It had been so long ago, and he said he had a hard time remembering the names — mostly the last names — of his division members. He credits Donna for all the work and time she put in to finding as many members as she has.
“It’s pretty amazing,” he said. “She put a lot of work in it.”
When the reunion was planned, Rossetti wanted to see all the guys but was not confident about being able to travel. A neck injury years ago has left his legs weak and his ability to walk is limited.
To his surprise, the guys were willing to come to Rock Springs. He called the gesture “awesome.”
Rossetti said the reunion was particularly successful due to the cooperation of the many businesses in the area. People in the various eating establishments treated them wonderfully.
“The cooperation we got from people was amazing,” he added.
What about plans for another reunion? Rossetti said Guthrie is thinking about hosting a second reunion in late spring of 2018 down in Georgia. Several of the men have already said they will be there, Rossetti confirmed.
From his time in Vietnam, Rossetti doesn’t dwell on the fighting. Instead, he likes to remember the friendships and bonds that were created.
“Many never came back, so it’s important to stay close with those that did,” he said. “We watched out for each other. We helped each other make it through.”
Information from: Rock Springs (Wyo.) Rocket-Miner, http://www.rocketminer.com