They last saw each other on a clear December day in 1969. They were Green Berets from separate units who were suddenly thrown together to fight side by side in a Godforsaken Army outpost near the Cambodian border.
They were both former farm boys, one from Illinois, the other from North Carolina. They were then 22 years old. When the fire fight was over hours later and the outpost at Bu Dop was once more secured, the two men, who had known each other only casually for months, parted and never met again.
Thirteen years later, Ted Sampley, now an unemployed potter, and Mike Parks, a postman, were reunited when they spotted each other Thursday through a crowd of faces at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. They were in street clothes and they converged hesitantly, unsure exactly where or how they once met.
Then Parks, the Illinois man, remembered. "Special Forces, right?" he asked. Sampley nodded yes, his eyes still riveted on the stranger's face.
"Remember Bu Dop?"
"My God!" Sampley exclaimed, his eyes widening as he grabbed Parks shoulders. "Bu Dop! Man, I've thought about that place. I've daydreamed about Bu Dop."
"Welcome home, man," Parks replied smiling, his hand still clasping Sampley's. "Welcome home."
Since Wednesday Washington has been a city of reunions. In hotel lobbies, on the street and in corner bars, but mainly at the black granite memorial they have come to know simply as The Wall, American veterans of the Vietnam War have met again, this time to reminisce of battles won and lost and to mourn comrades who never came back.
Among hundreds of informal reunions that occurred throughout the city over the last few days, the Green Berets' seemed typical. With each passing hour at The Wall, a circle that began with Sampley and Parks grew wider. First, from South Dakota, came Tommy Roubdieux, a Lakota Sioux Indian who won the Distinguished Service Cross, and his best friend from the war, Charles (Wolf Man) Woolf, now a cop in Ravenna, Ohio.
They were joined by a dozen others including Joe Kerwin, a 55-year-old former sergeant major who spent five years in Vietnam and trained many of the men to be Green Berets. In black iguana-skin cowboy boots, his white moustache as thick as a brush, Kerwin talked to them for hours at The Wall, recounting the legend of a Green Beret known as Mad Dog Shriver, who remains missing in action.
They were the Army's most select cadre of warriors, specialists in the ways of counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare, men who eventually came to symbolize the best and worst of America's involvement in the war. Although their paths rarely crossed in Vietnam, most of the men who came for the reunion last week already knew of each other because the Green Beret was and remains a fraternity.
The Army's Special Forces were the first to enter Vietnam, advisers in the 1950's to the South Vietnamese Army, and among the last Americans to leave in 1974. Although Special Forces had existed since the early 1950's it was President Kennedy who made them famous, outfitting them with green berets.
Most of the ones who are in Washington have left the service and gone on to become physicians, account executives, policemen, postmen and construction workers. Some simply haven't adjusted well. The men traded stories late at night of Green Berets they knew and fought beside who, unable to get on with their lives, are still nomads, traveling pennilessly from city to city incapable of calling any place home.
Last week, more than a decade after they parted, they convened to remember a time when their lives were spartan, geared more to survival than forging careers as civilians. At night they drank together and remembered each other's radio call signs -- Cherokee, Papa, Buzzard and Ozone. With flashlights in hand they kept a watch at The Wall, walking an endless path around it.
Tears welling in their eyes, they placed flowers before the memorial and talked solemnly of places like the Mekong Delta, Hill 481, Khe Sanh and Dak To, and of the men they knew whose names were on the granite panels.
And they spoke quietly of ambushes and fire fights, at times trembling upon recollection.
The Green Berets weren't alone. In hotel rooms scattered throughout the city there were emotional reunions of brigades and divisions such as the Army's First Infantry, its Air Cavalry and the famous "Herd," the 173rd Airborne.
But for most of the veterans the national salute seems to have been a reunion of total strangers, men who served in the same war but never met each other until they came to Washington.
Between 1959 and 1973, 2.2 million Americans served in Vietnam. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which organized the National Salute, said they expected no more than 15,000 to register their names in the fund's locater computer.
To find lost friends whom one actually served with in Vietnam was a difficult task. Most of the reunions that have taken place in the city since Wednesday have been of men bound not so much by shared personal experiences in the jungles or highlands of Vietnam, such as Sampley's and Park's, as by the patches they wore on their fatigue jackets or the states or cities they came from. They were there, certainly, but in different parts of Vietnam and in different periods.
They comprised an unusual society of people joined at the soul by a distant place and time. "I never found any of the guys from my unit," said Bob Valentine, an ex-Marine from Manassas, Va., who spent hours at the Hotel Washington, the gathering place of Navy veterans, searching for familiar faces. "But it doesn't matter, you know? I mean, I've met guys and it's like I've known them all along."
The Marines knew each other. The Rangers knew each other. The Green Berets knew each other, as well.
Before he left the Rosebud Indian Reservation to fly to Washington with a delegation of South Dakota veterans, Tommy Roubdieux packed together his most treasured possessions--a wooden pipe that symbolized brotherhood and personal sacrifice, a leather medicine bag stitched with blue and orange beads, and an eagle bone whistle that once belonged to his grandfather. Then, right before he left, his hair, which had grown to shoulder length, was cut--a symbol of tribal mourning.
Long ago the Lakota Sioux's grandfathers, after fighting the American government for years, made peace. From that point on, under tribal law, U.S. wars were their own as well, and when Tommy Roubdieux was called in 1965, he went.
He became a member of the Army's Special Forces, the Green Berets. He was one of 15,000 SF men who fought in Vietnam, 636 of whom were killed in action. He spent 52 months there. He worked in a team of eight other Green Berets, training and leading platoons of South Vietnamese troops.
Though they served in separate units in the war, he knew many other Green Berets like Kerwin, a tall Latino who grew up in the barrios of Houston, and George Marusiak, a Polish immigrant from Akron, because they were a fraternity. For a month at a time they wandered the jungles, "stomping around in some hell hole looking for trouble," Sampley said.
Kerwin described the Green Berets' aura of fraternity this way: "If one of us were killed, everybody, and I mean everybody, knew about it an hour later no matter where they were."
Roubdieux said he won his Distinguished Service Cross in 1969. There was an intense fire fight, with many wounded. A medical evacuation helicopter landed to pick up the casualties, one of whom was Roubdieux's cousin. As the helicopter took off with the injured men it was shot down and caught fire. Roubdieux leaped through the flames and extracted eight of the wounded men from the chopper. Then he and another Special Forces sergeant began returning the enemy fire and helped hold them off until another Med-Evac could arrive.
His cousin died there.
He helped in the evacuation of Saigon at the war's end, and retired from the service in 1975, at which time he returned home to Rosebud and became a medical adviser to the tribe.
Last week he came to Washington to mourn his friends who died and to acknowledge his debt to the living. On Friday he stood at the apex of the V-shaped memorial with a group of other Sioux in traditional headdresses and sang tribal prayer, war, and peace songs. Then he approached his friends, whom he hadn't seen in more than a decade. To Woolf, the Ohio cop, Roubdieux presented his wooden pipe. To Kerwin he presented his medicine bag. He gave his grandfather's eagle bone whistle to another man.
Those who received the gifts were stunned by the tribute, for they all knew how cherished they were.
Later, the men talked of their lives after the war. "You ever have nightmares, from over there?" Sampley asked Parks at one point. No, Parks replied.
"Me neither," Sampley went on in his soft southern drawl, "But I think about it alot. I'm just comin' to realize I got a whole lot of anger stored up. I mean we were the best. We were the Green Berets. They called us the fingers of the CIA. Freedom Fighters. I was something to be proud of then. We went over there to do a job. Then the government says, forget it, there's been a mistake. I think it's only rational to be p----ed off, you know?"
It's tough, he said, to go from a leader of men to "a nobody." Parks answered that when he came home he simply put away his uniform and got stoned for months on end: "Just wanted to say to hell with it." Eventually he became a postman, and is now studying psychology to help out in a veteran's outreach program in Champagne, Ill.
"The thing is," Kerwin said, gazing at the memorial crowd, many of them shaggy haired veterans in military fatigues, "these guys just can't seem to leave it behind. Some of them look like they never took off their uniforms. I wish they had shown up in regular clothes, you know -- show some sign that they've made it and are doing all right. I guess they can't. They're still clinging to it. Can't let go."
Many former SFers, Kerwin said, have moved on to become policemen and postmen. "And there's a reason for it," he added. "One to carry a gun, the other to retain that feeling of carrying a rucksack around and wandering the trails."
"A while ago a man I know, used to be in SF, called me up and invited me to join some spook outfit of his. I said, man, I'm too old. Those days are gone. You gotta move on sometime, right?"
Moments later a friend of Tommy Roubdieux approached Kerwin and told him Roubdieux, feeling intense guilt, had wept the previous night. Kerwin shook his head. "It's damn hard to move on," he said. "It really is."
Throughout the four-day salute the veterans of Special Forces gathered in Room 6066 at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. They drank barrels. At one point a man named John Baca walked into the room, a blue ribbon and medal around his neck. It was the Congressional Medal of Honor. Everyone hugged him and raised a toast. At another point a hapless, long-haired soul staggered into the room sporting a blue arrowhead patch on his jacket. It was the patch of the Green Berets, only the man had it on upside down. A fight ensued. The man was thrown into the hallway.
A figure with an old war wound, a gash on his forehead, approached a former Green Beret medic. He pointed at his forehead, and the medic suddenly remembered. "Goddamn! I stitched you up in the jungle somewhere," he shouted, hugging the man.
The men spoke of Vietnam's tribal folk -- the Hoa Hao, the Buddhist militants, and the fierce mountain people known as the Montagnards, all of whom they had attempted to train to take over America's fight. One former Green Beret wept when he remembered the death of one Montagnard, a man he said he respected as much as any SFer.
They also remembered oddities of the war, such as the outhouse at Bu Dop. The entire Army camp was below ground, in bunkers, but the outhouse, for some reason, was located atop a hill. People didn't sit there long, Sampley said. They recalled a beautiful Cambodian village just across the Vietnamese border. It look just like a small town in France, one said. It was an old banana planation built long ago by a Frenchman, and all the houses had antique furniture and big brass beds. It was like nothing they had ever seen. It was destroyed, they said, during some battle or another.
And throughout the long night there were recollections of Mad Dog Shriver, the legend, the Green Beret still missing in action. It was a patchwork quilt of remembrances. He was just a "skinny, blond-haired boy from U.S. who went to do a job," Kerwin said. "I've still got his jacket at home."
"He had these deadly eyes," another man said. "Total loner. It was a war made for that guy. Loved the f-----g jungle."
"Hundred kills," another added. "Bad, bad dude. Wore a gold earring and a necklace of teeth."
The last time Kerwin saw him, he said, Mad Dog was heading into the bush with a radio on his back. Everyone toasted his memory. Then they talked about the MIA's and how a flag in their memory ought to be raised near the memorial.
People have to remember, Tommy Roubdieux said. A bystander replied, "damn right."