WASHINGTON — On a mild winter day in the heart of the district, crowds roam the national monuments taking in the beauty and the history. While some quickly move on, one group of men can’t help but stop at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a nearly 500-foot-long wall with the names of the lives lost, and take it all in.
A member of Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, has been coming to the memorial every year since the dedication in 1982.
“Going to the wall is very, very special to honor the guys we lost,” said Edward T. Bassista, platoon squad leader. “You miss them and kind of wonder what their lives would’ve been like if they lived. The wall is special, especially for [us], because of the brotherhood we have.”
The regiment’s motto, Currahee, is believed to come from a Cherokee word meaning “stand alone.” The Soldiers are trained to perform as one, hence they stand alone in battle.
The bond between these Currahees, started more than 50 years ago when they trained together at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. They got to know each other well and learned they could depend on one another.
“You talk about cohesiveness — we had it,” Bassista said.
After arriving in Vietnam during the rainy season, they worked their way north, getting into small battles along the way. The unit was well-trained and ready to deal with the fighting, but the conditions they had to live in made things challenging.
They dealt with never-ending bug bites and would often spend weeks on end living in the mud and water.
“My whole body looked like a dried-up prune,” he said bluntly.
They pushed through and ultimately made it to Firebase Betty in Phan Thiet, where they protected the base and the surrounding area. They went on patrols and got into a few encounters, but nothing they couldn't handle.
“I figured I was going to make it pretty easy out of [Vietnam], and then Tet come along in ’68, and that’s when it really got bad,” said Ron Ford, second platoon fireteam leader.
The North Vietnamese led coordinated attacks in South Vietnam around the Lunar New Year celebration, Tet Nguyen Dan, in what became known as the Tet Offensive.
Feb. 2, 1968, the second platoon was on patrol when they came up to two houses. The platoon leader, John Harrison, sent a fireteam to check out the second house while his group took the first.
While Harrison and his team were talking to a few locals from the first house, they suddenly heard automatic gunfire come from the other.
"Something didn’t feel right," he recalled. "And then the world opened up [on us]. I’ve never, ever heard anything like the level of fire we heard then.”
They had walked into an ambush.
Harrison and his team quickly took cover. He radioed the company commander that his platoon was taking fire from every angle. He then looked up and saw that the tree he was hiding behind was being completely ripped apart from the assault.
“That was the beginning of one long and very bad day,” he said.
Assessing the situation, Harrison saw that one of his men was shot and lying on the front porch of the house. He sent a team to go through the back of the house to get him, but the squad leader got shot as well.
They regrouped in the first house and tried again to reach their wounded brothers, but to no avail. Harrison called in numerous airstrikes, even blowing the roof off the house, but they couldn't take control of the battle.
Reluctantly, they had to withdraw.
After nearly nine hours of fighting, night finally came. Then a group of the men volunteered to go back for the others. They weren't sure if they were alive, but they couldn't leave them there.
“I would do anything to save any of the guys,” Ford said. “I think that’s what made us special, that bond we had, that we still have.”
They made it through continuous enemy fire from multiple locations to find all three men, but they were already dead. They managed to bring each body back without taking any additional casualties.
“That was the worst day [in Vietnam] for us in second platoon,” he explained.
Unfortunately, things would not get better for them as Tet continued.
More than two weeks later on Feb. 19, the company engaged the Viet Cong in a firefight. The battalion commander, who was watching the battle from a helicopter, spotted the enemy changing positions. He ordered the third platoon to go after them.
“We got up, started moving, and all hell broke loose,” said John Colone, third platoon member.
Within minutes, exposed with no cover, the platoon took heavy damage. Eight men were killed and more than 20 were wounded, including John Colone. He was shot four times, and many were unsure if he would make it.
“I remember them saying ‘Colone’s dead, Colone’s dead,’” he recalled.
The next thing he knew, he was lying on the morgue floor toe tagged. One medic didn’t believe he was dead and went to get help. Another doctor checked the body by placing glasses under his nose to see if they would fog up. Nothing happened.
Finally, the doctor stuck a pen in his foot for final confirmation, and sure enough, it jumped. They rushed him to a nearby hospital where he would recover until being transported to a medical facility back in the U.S.
Many other wounded Soldiers from that battle were also transported out to safety. The unit’s losses that day were devasting for the company.
The remaining men would continue to fight in other battles until eventually being sent home later that year. All told, 176 Currahee lives were lost during the war with 26 of those from Alpha company.
In the years following the war, the men searched for ways to carry on after experiencing so much.
“I think you owe an obligation for the guys we lost to make a good life for yourself,” Ford said.
It wasn’t easy for many of them as some were spit on and ridiculed by the public for their involvement in the war. They also had to deal with the mental struggles of their experience.
“You have to wall things off or you just can’t take it,” Harrison said. “Parts of [war] are awful. People that haven’t done it have no idea how much death changes people.”
That mental toll affected many of the men and their relationships. As the years turned to decades, many of them started looking for ways to heal and reconnect with their Currahee brothers.
Reunions started taking place in the late ’90s where they would get together, tell stories, laugh and sometimes cry. This became an outlet for them to talk about things that had been bottled up for so long.
“These guys know what we went through, and we share that together, good times and bad times,” Bassista said. “These guys are my friends, they’re my true blood-brother friends.”
Being able to share what they had been through with their brothers made a positive impact on many of the men.
“For me, it was therapeutic,” Ford said. “I think it helped me a lot being able to talk about it.” Friends and family even started noticing a change in him, he said.
As they gathered, conversations would often take place about the guys they lost. They wanted a way to honor and remember them. So, every year they come together and head to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the day they lost so many, Feb. 19.
This year marked the 55th anniversary. More than a dozen Currahees, along with their family members, walked that narrow path as they searched and found the names. As other people quickly moved past, they stood and remembered.
They cried, they laughed, and they told stories about their times together before rendering a salute to the men who sacrificed their lives for their brothers and their country.
“We’re never going to forget them," Ford said. “It’s impossible. That’s a bond you can’t break.”
Every year around Memorial Day, the men donate money to put flowers on the gravesites of all 176 Currahee men that were lost during the war.