Remembering sacrifice: Vietnam vet reunites with unit buddies for reminiscing, pinning ceremony amid cancer fight

The same comrades who buoyed Nolan Bingham’s spirits 50 years ago reunited last week at his westside Columbus home to do precisely the same as he continued battling pancreatic cancer.

"What I liked best about serving (with them)," Bingham said, "was that they always gave me an uplift. I was never at a place with them when there wasn’t some uplifting thing that happened. 

"And you know, you can tell whatever kind of war stories you want to tell, but there’s nothing like looking up and seeing these guys walk into the room again like yesterday."

The Columbus native and soldier who earned a Purple Heart backspaced to 1970 and 1971 met with three of the members of his U.S. Army unit: Bravo Company 1st Battalion 46th Infantry 196th Infantry Brigade Americal Division. They are Gary L. Noller from Kerrville, Texas; Tommy Poppell of Panama City, Florida; and Sonny Crowder from Unicoi, Tennessee. They flew and drove into town upon hearing of Our Hospice of South Central Indiana plans to do an honor-oriented, pinning ceremony for the 74-year-old Bingham, a long-time local architect.

The nonprofit organization provides end-of-life care for patients and families in 16 counties in the state. In the past seven years, its outreach has included pinning ceremonies for more than 500 military veterans.

"You have served us," said hospice president Laura Leonard to Bingham. "And now we serve you."

Retired U.S. Army Brigadier Gen. Francis Hughes, dressed in full military regalia, figuratively and literally saluted former Sgt. Bingham and his peers, and presented each of them with a commemorative pin.

"I am standing in the presence of heroes," said Hughes, who lives in Columbus.

The veterans, gathered around Bingham’s hospital bed, seemed humbled by the attention. Crowder wiped tears from his eyes. Yet, judging from the group members’ wisecracks, Hughes was standing in the presence of good-natured comedians. For example, soon after Hughes arrived, he asked Crowder, "Were you ever Airborne?"

"Only when he was falling out of helicopter," Poppell said.

About 14 members of the unit have been reuniting about every two years or so since 1990 in various cities. At their gatherings, memories and anecdotes rise to the surface every few minutes in a random, free-form fashion — such as when Hughes mentioned that his brother was a pilot of UH 1 Iroquois helicopters, known as Hueys, in Vietnam in 1964.

"With the Hueys, you always knew that it was either something really good coming — or something really bad," Bingham said.

Bingham acknowledged that, amid stories of unwinding in their stand-down time in Vietnam with drinks and more, there was ample pain and suffering. That includes when a North Vietnamese bomb detonated after hitting him in the face. His nerve damage injuries sent him home in April 1971. 

"Yes, we have some memories that are not so good," Bingham said. "But I think we shove those to the back of our mind."

Noller mentioned the unity they forged.

"We knew we couldn’t get by all alone," Noller said. "The only way we could get by day to day was with each other. Our parents weren’t there. Our girlfriends weren’t there. Our brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews weren’t there. Our parish priests weren’t there.

"So we learned to take care of each other. That’s where the bonding came from. I tell people that the best people I know are the people I was in Vietnam with. Because that was the most trying time of my life. That’s part of why we care about each other now."

Hughes was impressed.

"That kind of camaraderie doesn’t exist quite as much in the civilian world," he told the group.

Poppell summarized their time as brothers in arms succinctly.

"We made something good," he said, "out of a very bad situation."

And, as evidenced by Wednesday’s get-together for the ailing Bingham, half a century later and half a world away, the ex-soldiers are still doing quite the same.

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The pinning ceremonies that Our Hospice of South Central Indiana have been doing for the past seven years include the reading of a framed citation and plaque for the soldier or soldiers to be honored, a few words from a presenter such as Gen. Francis Hughes and hospice staff, perhaps a story or two from the honorees comrades or friends, and a poem titled "Thank a Vet." Then a presenter pins a military keepsake onto the shirt of the honoree. The ceremony, which can be emotional, lasts about 20 minutes.