South County Times, June 2014.
Many Vietnam veterans from the 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company (ASHC) have found an outlet for healing after being silent and alone for more than four decades. Newly organized reunions are rebuilding lost relationships and providing a type of support found only with each other.
The veterans group gathered in Fenton for its third reunion last weekend. The event was hosted by Mike and Sue Koeller from Fenton. Each year attendance has grown and this year around 25 veterans attended the St. Louis reunion held at the Hampton Inn in Fenton. The first two reunions were held in Nebraska and Texas.
“It’s a great experience even for the spouses because most of these men came home and did not want to talk about Vietnam,” Sue Koeller said. “I’ve heard more stories in the last three years than I’ve heard in 38 years of marriage.”
Sue Koeller said the men spend most of their time together just talking. The schedule is designed with plenty of free time along with sight-seeing and dinners. The wives visited Grant’s Farm, the Arch and Forest Park with lunch at the Boathouse.
The 243rd Assault Support Helicopter Company was stationed at Dong Ba Thin, the Republic of Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. Their main mission was “combat insertions,” “assault support” and “re-supply.” Using Chinook helicopters, the company would transport troops into landing zones and “all the logistics behind that.” Logistics were items such as food, water, equipment and ammunition. Their company call sign – “Freight Train.”
Over the years, Koeller, like several of the veterans from the ASHC, tried to contact each other, but had little luck. Complicating matters was the fact that many of the soldiers did not know each other’s full names. They had either gone by nicknames or simply were called by their last name.
Deployment during the Vietnam War was different than today, or even during World War II. The men said that today cohesive units normally leave and return together. During Vietnam, soldiers would arrive and return home alone as part of an individual rotation.
When a Vietnam soldier’s service time was up, he was pulled out of the field and a new soldier was sent to replace him. Length of time spent together during service varied. Some soldiers served together for only a few months and some for a few years. After returning home alone it was easy to lose touch with one another — a scenario that did not allow veterans a close or immediate outlet for support.
The decades passed and many veterans remained alone until the advent of social media. The men began finding one another through Facebook and a revised website. An ASHC website was established for a 2001 memorial for members whose remains had only recently been located, identified and were brought home to rest together at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’m not big on social media and not even really computer literate, but (social media) is probably what has brought us back together,” Mike Koeller said.
Vietnam veterans faced a much different homecoming than returning soldiers of today. Though individual experiences varied in severity, the negativity and guilt they were made to feel caused pain and resentment many still feel to this day.
They said it is important to remember that it is not a soldier’s choice to go to war and Vietnam veterans should not have been treated with rejection and blame on their return.
Terry Warren from North Carolina returned from Vietnam and went back to school on the GI Bill. He said even having a simple conversation with other students could be difficult.
While students discussed scholarships, loans or how they were paying for school, Warren said he would remain quiet, fearing a backlash from the fact that he had served in Vietnam.
Roger Dressler from Kansas said that if there is a legacy for Vietnam veterans it should be that the war was a time for learning. Mistakes were made, and the nation had to learn from his generation, Dressler said.
Dressler remembers his father and older brother coming home from military service and proudly wearing their uniforms to church. In contrast, when Dressler got off the plane from Vietnam, he took off his uniform and did not want to put it back on.
“I knew the people where I went to church loved me, but I did not feel comfortable wearing that uniform,” he said. “I think that is pretty universal in our generation. That’s a difficult thing.
“Today you go into a Pizza Hut and there might be some National Guard guys there and people go over and shake their hands and buy their pizzas,” Dressler added. “That is so wonderful. It’s the way it should be.”
This is Dressler’s first ASHC reunion. He and Koeller worked in the motor pool together during the war and were good friends. Last weekend’s reunion was the first time in 45 years that the two men had seen one another. Dressler described their reunion as “amazing.”
David Quartieri is from Alabama and a veteran from both Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War-Desert Storm. He said it was very difficult to return home from Desert Storm and see the streets lined with people supporting the troops. It was opposite from what he experienced on his return home from Vietnam.
“It brought back a lot of bad memories of how we returned from Vietnam. It kind of hurt us inside. I’m happy to see that the Desert Storm soldiers got that kind of reception, but, then again, it made us envious,” Quartieri said. “How we felt when we got back from Vietnam, when they were throwing rocks and bottles at us and calling us baby killers, made it really hard for me coming back from Desert Storm.”
Quartieri said he was one of two Vietnam veterans serving in his Desert Storm Battalion. The two soldiers were able to discuss their feelings after returning from the Persian Gulf.
“After we sat and talked about it for a while it made us feel better because we knew we were appreciated this time,” Quartieri said. “That made a difference.”
This was also Quartieri’s first time attending an ASHC reunion. He said visiting with guys he had not seen in more than 40 years, and the welcoming they felt with each other, made for a “tremendous” experience. He thought the gathering would be more of a “guy thing,” but now wishes his wife had come along so she, too, could have experienced the event.
“It’s just great to see the healing process, the camaraderie, laughing and joking…after the silence of coming home and not even wearing their uniform and not being able to talk about it for years. Some of these men didn’t even tell their children about it,” Sandra Miller from New York and wife of an attending veteran said. “Now it’s coming out. They can talk, they can share, and they can start healing from this.”
Published: South County Times, June 2014.