FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - Friday morning people boarded two white buses on the final leg of a trip 50 years in the making. Many of the passengers were founding members of D Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, Rakkasans, 101st Airborne Division, created in 1967 during the Vietnam War.
Traveling with these men were other veterans, spouses, children, grandchildren and siblings. Throughout the day they talked and joked with each other, as they caught up since their last reunion. The group looked more like a large Family than anything else, and that is because of how close these men became when they were young Soldiers.
"We are brothers ... time doesn't change that," said Jerry Jarrett, one of the company's squad leaders in Vietnam. "It's a blessing to be able to celebrate after 50 years. It's a blessing to be 70 or 69 or 68 when a lot of your friends died at 17 and 18."
Family members of Soldiers who died in Vietnam and since the war ended attended as well. Jan Hampton's brother 2nd Lt. Jimmy Sherrill's died in combat on March 18, 1968, during one of the most perilous times on the battlefield for the unit. Throughout the day many of the veterans talked with Hampton about her brother as the group reminisced about their time as Soldiers.
The group returned to Fort Campbell to celebrate the unit's 50th anniversary. The visit is part of the Department of Defense's Vietnam War 50th anniversary commemoration Commemorative Partner Program. The program has united Vietnam veterans and their Families with the American public. So far more than 10,000 organizations have hosted 9,000 ceremonies and individually thanked 1.4 million of the 7 million living Vietnam veterans.
For many of the former Soldiers this was their first trip back to Fort Campbell. They arrived at a post that has completely transformed itself during their absence, yet their legacy is still very much a part of Fort Campbell. Fifty years ago when the company first stood up, it did not have any enlisted Soldiers. The company commander, Paul Bucha, who would go on to earn the Medal of Honor during the unit's tour in Vietnam, would stand at the head of a formation that lacked Soldiers and existed more on paper than in reality.
When it came time to fill the ranks, the Soldiers came from other units. Many tried to tell Bucha about how bad many of his Soldiers were, and other officers regarded it as a group nobody wanted to lead. He was not immune to criticism either and Bucha said if you asked for his official description back then it was "The nutcase." However, instead of going by what he heard, Bucha learned one of the most profound lessons of his life, which was to always make his own assessments of the troops he lead. He gives that same advice to today's military cadets when he speaks to them.
"Here's a group that was judged by society to be the worst of the worst and went on to prove that they were the best of the best," Bucha said. "And here they are. You could go to any unit - any unit - and say lets take the top 20 decorations given and then compare to the top 20 in ours ... that is what is so neat about it."
Bucha elaborated by saying that there were only 89 people in his unit involved in the battle in March 16-19, 1968, when his force on a mission to locate and destroy the enemy engaged a much larger North Vietnamese Army unit. The best analogy for the battle was a Jack Russell terrier finally catching the bus it was chasing, Bucha said.
The unit was heavily outnumbered and during the fierce fighting many Soldiers were killed or wounded. At one point, Bucha had the unit only use grenades so the enemy could not locate them by their muzzle flashes in the darkness and overrun Delta company.
Many of the Soldiers in the company received life threatening wounds. When helicopters evacuated the wounded, veterans like Bill Pray, a squad leader in third platoon, assumed some of those men died because they had lost so much blood. Pray said more than 46 Soldiers were killed or seriously wounded and the veterans did not know who died and who survived as they continued with their mission. Most would not find out the fate of their brothers-in-arms until later and this made the reunion even more emotional because this was the first time some of the veterans had seen each other since the war.
In the aftermath of the battle 12 Soldier from Delta Company were killed, as well as at least 156 NVA soldiers, four members of his company received Distinguished Service Crosses and 30 received Silver Stars in addition to Bucha's Medal of Honor.
"They are the most highly decorated unit of the Vietnam War of its size," Bucha said.
What the Soldiers of D Co. accomplished as a unit added to the lineage of traditions of the Iron Rakkasans of Third Battalion. Even today the entire battalion strives to live up to the example set by the company during Vietnam.
Lieutenant Colonel Martin Bowling, commander of 3-187th Inf. Regt., has been in the Army for more than 18 years, and this is his second time serving with the Rakkasans. His close connection with Vietnam veterans like these, including his father and his father-in-law was one of the main reasons he joined the Army.
Bowling said it is easy to find red toriis on cars, shirts and buildings throughout Fort Campbell and Clarksville. Starting a conversation talking about what that symbol means is a way to introduce them to the unit's history.
"When I have my newcomers brief, the first thing I tell them 'you are walking in the hallways of the most decorated infantry battalion in the history of the United States Army. We're the Iron Rakkasans, and you are now part of that,'" Bowling said. "Their eyes get big, and they want to know more."
So by having his Soldiers interact with people like the veterans of D Co. is one way the battalion maintains its heritage.
"The Delta Company guys and their history in Vietnam, how they were created by a bunch of other units and then thrown into this really difficult mission and to have accomplished what they did, what that represents to the history of Rakkasan lineage and legend it's absolutely amazing," Bowling said. "Those are exactly the kind of guys that I want to be around today's Rakkasans."
The group exited the buses in front of McAuliffe Hall, the division headquarters. Current members of the D Co., 3-187th Inf. Regt., including its commander, Capt. Zachery West, welcomed them back to Fort Campbell and the group toured the monuments in front of the building. Adding to the solemnity of the occasion was Fort Campbell's Survivor's Outreach Services annual Boots on the Ground display. Orderly rows of more than 7,000 boots, with a photo, background information and an attached flag representing each active-duty service member who has died since 9/11 surrounded the monuments in front of the building.
Inside McAuliffe Hall, in a short ceremony Col. Daniel Duncan, the deputy chief of staff for the 101st Abn. Div., welcomed the veterans home. For many of the veterans, this was an entirely different experience than they had when they returned from the Vietnam War.
There were no homecoming ceremonies for veterans like Harold Maier, a forward observer attached to D Co. who returned home on a Medevac flight.
"Nobody was there except the chaplain ... nobody. Not a single soul," Maier said. "Now we started scratching our heads. I went in at 17. I volunteered to go in the Army. I volunteered to go airborne. I volunteered to go to Vietnam. I wanted to have that validity as a human being. I wanted to be a man, and I could think of no better way to be than to go to war right."
For a patriotic young man who enlisted so young, it was just the first of many slights toward his service that Maier would experience. Numerous other Vietnam veterans had similar experiences. Maier's service on the battlefield as well as his wounds were treated with indifference when he arrived back in America. Instead of victory parades or the adulation of the public, Maier experienced misunderstanding. So he stopped talking about his time there, as did many other Vietnam veterans.
He said he noticed a change in attitude starting around Desert Storm and the change has continued until today.
As the veterans continued their tour of Fort Campbell, they experienced The Sabalauski Air Assault School and witnessed how the division took the techniques these Rakkasans helped pioneer in Vietnam and transformed it into current military doctrine. Some of the veterans like Ray Pfeffer, who served with the unit as an infantryman, took the opportunity to experience a taste of the training by rappelling off the tower at TSAAS, with as much zeal as any of the students or cadre would.
In Vietnam, Pfeffer served in brigade headquarters as a radio operator before, being rotated down to D Co. to serve as a rifleman. He described the move as "one of the best things that ever happened to me."
Jarrett described Pfeffer as "one of the best men" in his squad.
"They welcomed us so well and were so giving," Pfeffer said. "They let me rappel off the tower that was so cool. I'm too old for that crap, but I did it."
After visiting TSAAS, the group ate lunch at a dining facility and the veterans mingled with Soldiers. From there they traveled to the Don. F. Pratt Museum housed at the Dryer Field House where retired Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Nichols ensured everyone who served received a Vietnam veterans lapel pin and a p-38 can opener. Additionally, he passed out challenge coins depicting the Purple Heart to everyone wounded in action, and Bucha made sure the entire group - even the grandchildren - received a torii pin.
The group then moved to the Rakkasan pylon and had time to spend time at the memorial wall that had the names of the fallen chiseled into the stone. Everyone had time to examine the names and see their friends and loved ones honored. Up next was a trip to a dining facility. In front of the building named for Spc. 5 Dennis F. Moore, the group honored him by reading the orders awarding him his posthumous Distinguished Service Cross.
The final portion of the tour was the highlight of the day, and it brought together the veterans with the current members of D Co. The Soldiers interacted with their predecessors showing them modern weapons and equipment. The time they spent together reaffirmed the link between the past and the present.
"It was truly an honor and a privilege to host these guys today," West said. "These are the Soldiers and officers and NCOs that founded this company. So they are the ones that established the legacy and what this company stands for today."
"I think going back to see Delta Company of today and the young men that are our replacements was very enjoyable," Jarett said. "I enjoyed going to the wall."
Dave Dillard, a sergeant in D Co. who served as Bucha's radio operator, has worked to find and reunite members of the unit since 1984 after a visit to the Vietnam Wall Memorial at Washington D.C. Being able to interact with today's Soldiers and see it culminate as many members of D Co. stood together once again was a great experience for him.
"It was all that we were looking for and I mean in the way that you can take guys back and show them things and have all those big memories come flooding back in," Dillard said. "Not only that but we had the opportunity to speak with the Soldiers of today and from our company and see the company commander and the first sergeant and go to their living quarters and to be able to see what life is like for them. Probably the most important thing is to be there and let them know that we care about them, that they're our little brothers and that they have a heritage that is strong. It was just an amazing day and it accomplished I think everything that I ever had hoped for when we started to plan this."
Many of the veterans said this might be the last time the unit comes together like this. Pfeffer said it was not maudlin to think that because of their age it may be the last time they see each other, and Dillard said the experience was bittersweet.
"The youngest are 68. Fifty years that's 18 and most of us were 18," Dillard said. "It's just watching these guys you know come together and realize that yeah this is probably it. It's great. It's wonderful. We'll have the banquet on Saturday that's going to be rich in good stuff and we'll have some good talks, but when that ends, an era will end."