Vietnam veterans reunite in Gibson City
GIBSON CITY — The sharing was as warm as any good family reunion, but the men who gathered last weekend at Tom Heavilin's house in Gibson City are not related by blood, but by their shared military service.
Mayor Dan Dickey welcomed the group by presenting a proclamation declaring June 8 to be "Vietnam Veteran Brotherhood Day in the City of Gibson." The proclamation urged all citizens to recognize the men's "personal sacrifice for the rights and freedoms of all."
The core group served in the same squadron from 1969 to 1970 in the U.S. Army as part of the Third Platoon, Bravo Company, 2nd and 14th Battalion, 25th Infantry Division.
Squadron leader Dan Slocum of Hastings, Mich., organized the first reunion in 1973 but said only five or six men attended.
Heavilin, who has now hosted two reunions, said he wasn't ready to talk about that time in his life until about 20 years after his service ended.
Slocum agrees that it just took time for the men to be receptive, which is why he organized a reunion again in 1990. He said the men hated to leave that particular reunion.
The third reunion was held in 1993, and it has been held biannually ever since.
This year's reunion brought out the biggest turnout yet, with 15 veterans present from Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah.
At Saturday's event, light blue shirts distinguished the veterans. The shirts, purchased three reunions ago, are accented with the unit's symbol — a golden lightning bolt on a red background which the men said is better known as "the electric strawberry."
Slocum said that each year, the core group locates more fellow squadron members or others via the Internet or word of mouth. "We just want to get a hold of the guys and see them again," he said.
The core group welcomes all comers to the reunions. Ed Morrow Sr. of South Sioux City, Neb., is one of those, having served in 1968, ahead of most of the rest of the core group.
Morrow describes the reunions as "very therapeutic."
Like the harsh desert environs of today's wars in the Middle East, jungle warfare in Southeast Asia had its share of challenges besides the enemy.
Slocum recalls being positioned near rice paddy dams and waking up in chest-deep water.
Bob Beyers of Champaign remembers waking up to find two beady eyes staring at him from his chest hair. The unwanted co-inhabitant turned out to be a rat that was as large as a cat.
Other than a few reminiscences like that, though, the men are quiet about the details of their service in Vietnam.
It was a war with its share of horrors, like any war. It was also a war where veterans were not welcomed home with banners and parades.
"None of us wanted to go, but we all did our job," Heavilin said of their service in the largely unpopular war. The war ended in a peace agreement signed in 1973.
Slocum recognizes that Vietnam veterans are receiving more recognition and services today than they did on first returning from the war. He also is pleased that today's veterans are receiving respect, even if someone disagrees with the war itself.
Not all of the squadron came home, though. One photo display honors three squadron members lost to mortar fire, accidental drowning and an ambush. Beyers tears up a bit while relating that the comrade lost to ambush was killed after trading duty one night with him.
While none of those gathered knew each other before the war, Heavilin sums up the general feeling when he said, "These guys are an extension of my family — these are my brothers."
That family is looking forward to its 2015 reunion in South Sioux City, Neb.