Walraths share love story that started during Vietnam War
June 2, 2014
- "We call ourselves a serendipity -- Burt told me that and it's right -- a total, unsought for discovery. He obviously wasn't looking to be married. He had work to do." - Gail Walrath said about their 1970 meeting
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- Retired Col. Burt Walrath, and Gail, his wife of more than 43 years, stood proudly near 101st Airborne Division and Fort Campbell commander Gen. James C. McConville, May 22, at the Division Review.
Part of the highly-anticipated Week of the Eagles festivities, 101st Airborne Division Vietnam Veterans and their Family members participated in the ceremony and stood proudly at the reviewing stand to watch the troops pass. The Walraths surveyed the Soldiers in formation, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing their son -- Lt. Col. Bryan Walrath, Fort Campbell Warrior Transition Battalion commander -- lead his troops across the Division Parade Field.
The reunion of sorts was sweeter for the Walraths, since the Week of the Eagles theme "Remembering the 101st in Vietnam -- Building on the Legacy of Courage and Strength" brought back memories of how they met. The pair first crossed paths during the Vietnam War, in the middle of Burt's Army career. Gail was in Vietnam working as a civilian counselor, one of just 12 women based at Cu Chi.
"That was right in the heart of the Iron Triangle," Gail explained.
Gail first worked at Fort Gordon, Ga., and studied at the Civil Affairs School before volunteering to go to the combat zone.
The pair met soon after Gail's arrival in-country and talked briefly. All the females were invited to the 25th Infantry Division's general's mess on Sundays. Burt had just finished his time as battalion commander for 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, and was now serving as a principal staff officer.
"I was seated beside him," Gail recalled. "And I did not want to get married, because I had boyfriends from the time I was in kindergarten … Then I met Burt."
Gail, who traveled to Vietnam at 25, was 12 years Burt's junior. Burt enlisted at 17, served in the Korean theater and went to Officer Candidate School, among other assignments, before meeting his wife.
"That's where I met this good looking, young -- I want to emphasize young -- lady who was out in a division fire support base out in the middle of the … [Viet Cong] territory," he said, fondly. "I don't know what she was doing out there, but that was fine with me."
"We call ourselves a serendipity -- Burt told me that and it's right -- a total, unsought for discovery," Gail added, of their 1970 meeting. "He obviously wasn't looking to be married. He had work to do."
Burt also served with the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 101st Abn. Div. -- the first Infantry unit to enter combat in Vietnam -- when he was a major.
"We were the first unit in Vietnam, first combat unit," Burt explained. "So I spent 13 months at that, and I was a battalion XO."
"When I was in … 2-327th, we were in pretty heavy combat," Burt said. "When I had a battalion, we were in contact with the enemy for 300 straight days. I was taking 20 dead and 200 wounded a month in my battalion."
Gail also had her share of danger, as underneath Cu Chi lay a series of tunnels that the Viet Cong used as a base of operations, with everything from hospitals, to food and weapons being run out of the intricate system. In addition, Gail served in roles not unlike the Female Engagement Teams of today, by volunteering to go on MEDCAP missions, where with her Vietnamese language skills, she helped play with and sing to the children and make sure they were prepared to see the doctor.
"The children in these VC villages had never seen an American female," Gail said. "They were afraid of the Soldiers, although they were doctors and medics … They just wanted to touch my face."
After meeting, Burt went back into combat in the Mekong Delta for several months, while the pair wrote letters back and forth.
"We still have all of our letters in big stacks," Gail said. "He's such a good writer, and I always thought -- I'd like a real man, a macho man, but how can you get a macho man who can write and who has beautiful words to say? That's when I knew I really do like this guy, because he could write."
Burt soon returned to Cu Chi and proposed, and not long after that, Gail had to return to the States after her mother died unexpectedly. In the interim, Burt, other Soldiers and the couple's mutual friends helped arrange a wedding ceremony in Saigon. Weddings happened in Vietnam throughout the war, but it was certainly not common and highly discouraged.
The Walraths were married March 20, 1971, at Tan Son Nuht Chapel in Saigon.
The couple's story continued beyond Vietnam, where Burt retired after 32 years of Army service, and Gail continued her civilian career, retiring in 1997, after working with Special Forces and Psychological Operations, among others.
The pair traveled from their home in Jacksonville, Fla., to take part in the 2014 Week of the Eagles festivities. The Walraths appreciated the opportunity provided by the Fort Campbell community to come out and be recognized for their service in Vietnam.
"I'm honored to be back in the division," Burt said. "It's just pleasant to be back with Soldiers. I got to go down to the 2-327th and talk with a few Soldiers there. It's really been a nice, nice trip for us. Probably one of the last times we'll ever be able to do it. It's been a great day."
However, nothing makes them prouder than to see the success of their son, Bryan.
"We've had a great life, I'll tell you," Burt said. "It's fun watching Bryan grow up and become a senior officer. He will continue to do well."
Despite being wounded in Iraq in 2004, Bryan overcame his injuries to continue his Army career.
While the couple never pushed their son toward the military, initially thinking he might become a doctor or an engineer; ultimately it was like father, like son.
"He said, 'Dad, can you show me how to polish these boots better than anybody?'" Gail said, of when Bryan joined Army Junior ROTC in high school. "So Burt showed him, and he was hooked."