In honor of the men of A co, 2nd of the 3rd inf. 199th light inf bd.
"Is this you?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's me, second from the left...the handsome guy holding the machine gun."
My Engineer, Bobby Tracy, showed me this picture last week. It was taken by a soldier that had an small Instamatic camera tucked up in the band of his helmet. The helmet band was usually used to store cigarettes or a flask of whiskey, so Bobby found it memorable that this photographer had tucked his camera there. The photo shows Bobby and four of his comrades, trudging through a swamp, somewhere in the jungles north of Saigon, not far from the Cambodian border.
I was somewhat surprised that Bobby showed me this picture. Like most veterans, he doesn't like to talk about his military service, and in the past I could never get him to tell me much about his experiences in Vietnam. Since he was being so verbose this day, I decided to press my luck, and ask him some questions.
"What became of these guys?" I asked.
"Well, as they say... a picture's worth a thousand words," Bobby said.
He then looked down at the photo and pointed to the guy bending down in the far left hand side of the photo. "This guy here...the one filling his canteen, that's Jasper McGruder from Elmira, New York. Jasper and I were great friends. We went through basic training together in Fort Dix. From there we went to Fort Benning, Georgia for helicopter and counter insurgency training, then to Camp Shelby in Mississippi for jungle training and finally to Oakland California where we got on a troop ship to Vietnam. That was December, 1966. "
Bobby's face now brightened, "Did I ever tell you about the time when I met up with Jasper in New Haven?"
"No," I said. "I don't think you have."
"It was five, maybe six years ago. I was thumbing through The New Haven Advocate and I came across an ad for a play by Moliere, called School for Wives. Anyway, I'm looking at the ad and it says that it stars a guy named Jasper McGruder. I thought to myself...How many Jasper McGruders could there be? I drove down to The Yale Rep Theatre and picked up a play bill, and there on the second page, was a picture of my old buddy Jasper. He had lost some hair since I had seen him last, but it was definitely Jasper. I asked around and found out which hotel he was staying in and I paid him a surprise visit. Later that week, my wife and I had him over for dinner at the house, and he got to meet the family. It was really great to see him again."
Bobby's face was beaming now. It was as though he'd been reunited with a long lost brother. He pointed again to the photo, picking out the soldier immediately to his right. "This guy here, that's Otto Guhl from Stamford, CT. He was injured in two different fire fights, and earned two separate Purple Hearts. He still lives in Connecticut and we call each other from time to time and get together." Bobby now moved his finger along the photo to a soldier standing in the background. "That's Elmo Reilly. I'm not sure what happened to him, but someone told me that he stayed in the military and made a career out of it."
"And who's this guy in the foreground?" I asked.
"Here lies the signigficance of this picture," he said. "That's the late Sam Arrington. I believe he was from Florida. About a week after this picture was taken, February 5th, 1967, to be exact. Our platoon was ambushed while we were walking through a rice paddie. Sam poked his head up from behind a dike to check the enemy's position, and..."
Bobby's mood now turned sullen, "Well, let's just say that Sam made the ultimate sacrifice for his country."
Bobby nervously rubbed his chin and placed the photo back in it's envelope. I wondered if he felt he'd said too much...but he continued: "Our platoon leader, 2nd Lieutenant Richard Coachys (not pictured) was standing near me at the time of the ambush. Coachys had been shot twice in the upper thigh and had a piece of his rifle embedded in his stomach. He was bleeding badly, but he still found the strength to get on the radio and call for air support. A few minutes later, we had planes dropping artillery all around us. By the end of the day we had lost two members of our platoon and had about five guys wounded."
What ever happened to Coachys? I asked.
Bobby said that the last time he had seen his Lieutenant, he was recovering from his injuries in a field hospital in Saigon. He went onto say, that a couple of years ago, he was reading a VFW magazine and saw that The 199th was having a reunion in Virginia. One of the people mentioned in the article was Richard Coachys. Unfortunately, the reunion was the same week as Bobby's daughter's wedding, and he was unable to attend. He did, however, track down Coachys' phone number and gave him a call. It turns out that the lieutenant stayed in the military and eventually made it to the rank of Colonel. He retired a few years ago and he now lives in Georgia. He has three sons, all who serve or have served in the army. One of his sons is a West Point grad, and another is now serving in Iraq."
We were pulling into Grand Central, so I thanked Bobby for showing me his picture and telling me his story. I then asked him for his permission to mention his experiences in a Veteran's Day blog. He said that I could use his story, but he didn't want me to make it too "dramatic" or "sappy." I told him that it would be hard to not make the story "dramatic" but I'd try to keep the sappiness at a mimimum. I think he was worried that I'd make the story all "Stars and Stripes" and try to paint he and the members of his platoon as a American heroes.
But aren't they?
This Veteran's Day, take the time to say a prayer for our troops and our veterans. Please thank a veteran for their service and remember to say an extra prayer for Pvt. Sam Arrington, and all the other members of the military who have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country.