'They Are My Men': A 50-Year Veterans Reunion Helped My Dad Process A Brutal Battle
Not a day goes by that my dad, former Army Staff Sgt. Tom Frame, doesn't think about the men who fought and died alongside him in Vietnam.
In recent years for Veterans Day, he and some other guys from his unit have paid tribute by traveling to Texas, which was home for Staff Sgt. Marvin Rex Young. Young was one of 18 men who lost their lives in the Battle of Ben Cui, an intense firefight between my dad's unit and the North Vietnamese army.
The pilgrimages have been a way for my dad to reconnect with his fellow soldiers. And it was another trip to Texas, back in the summer, that really helped him honor Young and the others who died in the Battle of Ben Cui.
It has been 50 years since Ben Cui, and to mark the anniversary, my dad organized a reunion for soldiers from his unit and for family – the first time since 1968 that the men would be together on the day of the battle, Aug. 21.
I asked him why he wanted to get the guys together. "It's my duty," he said.
But really, my father doesn't need an occasion to remember. "I wake up in the morning and I look outside at a beautiful morning — and I think about them," he told me. He wonders why he survived and they didn't. It weighs on him. And it has weighed on our whole family — in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
My dad's PTSD manifests primarily as anger — the erupt-out-of-nowhere irrational kind. It's a fierce rage on a short fuse. And it's had a ripple effect. I see anger in me, my brother and my sister. My anger kicks holes in doors and walls, strains relationships and is best calmed with several cigarettes and solitude.
Over the years, my dad has faced his PTSD, and in many ways, things have gotten better. He has found that talking about the war with other veterans has helped. But I know he still struggles. I decided to join him at the reunion over the summer to see whether remembering that awful day with his fellow soldiers would somehow help him come to terms with it.
This past August, my parents and I met in Odessa, Texas, and went together to the Sunrise Memorial Gardens and Funeral Home, where Rex Young is buried. We gathered with the other veterans and their families in the chapel, and at 11:10 a.m., the call to arms sounded over loudspeakers.
At that exact time 50 years ago, the guys were half a world away, about to enter battle. It was a muggy morning and my dad's unit, part of the 5th Infantry Regiment,was headed on a reconnaissance mission into enemy territory. There were 88 men from his unit there that day. Some were on foot, wading through thick brush into the dark canopy of the Ben Cui rubber tree plantation. Others were in armored personnel carriers behind .50-caliber machine guns.
Shots rang out. A North Vietnamese sniper killed one of the men almost immediately, then wounded another. Suddenly, the bullets were everywhere. "[Medic] Gary Young said this about a year ago," my father told me later, "and it really brought it back to me. He said, 'Remember all of the leaves on the vegetation? It was like it was pouring rain — they were all moving. That was the bullets.' "
A retreat was ordered. But 18 men were left lying on the battlefield, and that has been the hardest part for my dad. "The thing that will always stick in my mind — was anybody left out there alive?" my dad said.
The memorial service ended with a prayer.
My dad prayed for those 18 men, as he always does. "I just ask when I pray that [God] continues to hold those men and their families in his loving arms," my father told me later. "And he continues to take care of them. And I'll meet them soon."
After the service, it was time for lunch and dessert at a nearby golf club. The old soldiers came with their spouses and friends, and they shared memories over peanut butter pie and cheesecake. "Thirty, 40 years ago, you probably wouldn't have gotten anything out of anybody," he said later. "We were so angry at our government; we were angry at the people of our country for not supporting us. So you know, we just wanted to put it away and move on with our lives. And that's what we did."
"Now, talking about it is part of the healing process."
I saw the familiar faces of his fellow soldiers. As I was taking Pvt. Nick Fasselin's portrait, he told me that the Battle of Ben Cui was his first day in the field in Vietnam. On another day in another battle, Nick saved my dad's life. I hugged Pvt. Abe Cardenas. He was the last one to see Rex Young alive. I talked to Maj. Gen. Andy Anderson, who had recently started chemotherapy and ignored his doctor's recommendations to not travel to Texas.
My father is still searching for a way to find peace with what happened, but I could see this day had at least temporarily eased his burden. It helps him to be around the guys, he said. "They are my men."
But some things can't be easily fixed, like the inescapable fact that he's still alive and others are not. "I'll never come to terms with that Kara," he told me. "Not until I'm dead."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.