Generations of warriors: 1-61st veterans reunite, meet current counterparts
Ten members of the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment who served together in Vietnam are reunited last week at Fort Jackson during the battalion's graduation ceremony. Front row, from left: Capt. Yong Kim, Leonard Samora, Fred Jelinek, Tom Coopey, Command Sgt. Maj. Willie Parker, Lt. Col. Charles Krumwiede. Middle row, from left: Pedro Marzan, Dave Kolenc, Sam Robinson and Carl Hill. Back row, from left: Staff Sgt. Gary Allender, Richard Heavner, Wayne Mckendree and Wayne Cumer.

FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- New Soldiers assigned to the 1st Battalion, 61st Infantry Regiment spend more than two months in Basic Combat Training learning to be warriors. A little more than 40 years ago, however, Soldiers in the battalion were in the thick of combat.

Ten members of the 1-61st who fought together during the Vietnam War reunited last week during the battalion's graduation ceremony.

"Last year I received a letter asking what was the one thing I wanted to do before I died. My response was I wanted to see as many guys from my platoon as possible," said Pedro Marzan, a Columbia real estate agent.

So with some leg work and help from battalion commander Lt. Col. Charles Krumwiede and Command Sgt. Maj. Willie Parker, Marzan was able to locate 11 of his former battle buddies and invite them to Fort Jackson for the reunion.

"This was the first time many of us have seen each other in 42 years," said Wayne Mckendree of Marietta, Ga. "We became such a close-knit group in Vietnam. It was amazing for us to have a chance to get together and rekindle our friendships."

The battalion, which was deployed from Fort Carson, Colo., in July 1968, was sent to Vietnam to serve as a reconnaissance unit in the Demilitarized Zone.

"We were a self-supported task force, and our mission was to stop the infiltration of North Vietnamese through the DMZ," said Sam Robinson, of Folly Beach. "It was very dangerous. We would go ahead of the main rifle companies and probe enemy lines. You wouldn't make contact with the enemy every day, but the possibility was always there. You had to be on alert."

Despite the danger of their mission, only two Soldiers were killed in action. In December 1968, half of the battalion was then reassigned to other units south of the DMZ.

"These veterans of the 1-61st saw a lot of combat in Vietnam," Krumwiede said. "We had not known how perilous the fight was for them, being so far away from the main supply routes and being so close to North Vietnam."

Making the reunion happen was no easy task. Marzan, who began looking for his fellow veterans last year, searched on the Internet for names and ages that matched a plaque he had that listed their names. The Columbia man then contacted the battalion to see if the reunion could take place at Fort Jackson.

"We wanted these veterans to reconnect with each other and to use the current 1-61st as the venue," Krumwiede said. "Many of them had not seen each other in 40 years and probably would not have gotten together if we had not provided the logistics and the location."

After being reunited during the battalion's graduation ceremony, the veterans toured Fort Jackson ranges and training facilities.

"I was amazed at the technology being used to train our Soldiers today. They really focused a great deal on marksmanship and decision-making in the battlefield environment," Robinson said. "It gave me a great sense of confidence in the jobs people like Lt. Col. Krumwiede are doing in training today's Soldier."

The veterans also had a chance to meet and speak with Basic Combat Training Soldiers.

"The thing that amazes me is when I was in the Army we had the draft. Most of us were draftees," Robinson said. "In today's Army everyone serving is a volunteer. That is something that is very special and unique about our country that there are people who love America enough that they are willing to sacrifice themselves in a time of war."

Krumwiede said it is beneficial for Soldiers to meet these veterans.

"Having these veterans meet with the Army's newest Soldiers and with our cadre reinforced the theme that the shared experience of the Soldier is timeless and that the sense of teamwork and camaraderie that is being developed will last forever," he said.

Page last updated Thu September 16th, 2010 at 07:44