NCO class finds closure 40 years late

By Cheryl Neely
Sept. 7, 2010

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- During the Viet Nam War, the Army discovered that it had a shortage of noncommissioned officers in-country to command squads. Therefore, various NCO academies were formed for various military occupational skills, including infantry, engineer, artillery and others.

The NCO academy for combat engineers was formed at Fort Leonard Wood. After combat engineer AIT, certain candidates were chosen and sent to the six-month course. Upon completing the course, the candidates were promoted to the rank of Sgt., and sent to AIT companies to act as assistant drill sergeants for approximately six weeks. After, completing the six weeks, the NCOs were given orders for duty in Viet Nam.

In April 1970, Class 10-70, under the command of Sgt James O'Hallorans, began with 42 candidates. In October 1970, the remaining 28 NCOs from the graduating class were given orders and deployed to Viet Nam.

The graduates of Class 10-70 went to Viet Nam together. However, after spending three days at the Bien Hoa Replacement Depot in Viet Nam, the class was split-up and the NCOs were sent to various units throughout Viet Nam. Some were fortunate enough to be stationed with a classmate or two, while others were sent to serve their tour of duty alone.

The entire class was deployed to Viet Nam with the exception of one class member, Aaron Norris. Norris is the youngest brother of karate and film star, Chuck Norris. During the academy course, Chuck and Aaron's middle brother, Wieland Norris, was serving as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division in Viet Nam. However, during training, then- Cpl. Aaron Norris had received word that his brother Wieland had been killed in action.

When the 10-70 class members received their orders for duty in Viet Nam, now-Sgt Aaron Norris had received orders to serve in Korea. Not wanting to be separated from his classmates, Norris tried desperately to have his orders changed. However, opposition from the Red Cross prevented him from joining his classmates, and he ultimately served a full tour of duty in Korea.

While Class 10-70 served their tour in-country, in June of 1971, Sgt Alfonso "Al" Varela was severely wounded after running over a land mine with his vehicle and was reassigned to stateside duty.

On July 25, 1971, Sgt Charles "Ricky" Harris succumbed to an illness and passed away in-country.

In October,1971, the remaining classmates of class 10-70, after completing their tours of duty were given orders to return stateside duty. However, because the classmates had all been separated, they did not all return home together. Once dropped off at various bases along the U.S. west coast, they said goodbye to whichever classmate they had traveled with, and returned home to civilian life or continued to serve out the rest of their enlistment commitments at various bases around the states. After the last classmates had left the Army, class 10-70 was disbanded and the classmates resumed their private lives without any further contact.

In private life, Al Varela had become an investigator working for various litigation law firms in California. One of his primary duties was to locate witnesses and interview them.

Around 2007, Al began thinking about one of his former classmates, Ricky Baxter. He remembered Baxter had lived in Pennsgrove, NJ, so there is where he began his search.

Eventually, Al traced Baxter to Mrs. Terri Cline. Terri informed Al that she had been married to Ricky, but he had died approximately two years before. After a long telephone conversation Al and Terri promised to keep in contact.

A few weeks later, Al, after feeling depressed about the news of Baxter, began to wonder what had happened to his other classmates. Had others passed away too' He had to know. Accordingly, Al decided to locate his other classmates and he began his quest to find his 10-70 classmates.

Class 10-70 was a very close-knit group, and they had formed an inseparable bond during training. They had laughed, cried, bled, and hurt together as one unit for six months. They had embodied the true meaning of "one for all and all for one."

To that end, Al remembered how on one Saturday night, during their training, a small group of 10-70 classmates went into the adjacent town of Waynesville, Mo., to let off steam. After a night of drinking, they decided that they should all get tattoos, so they went into a local tattoo parlor. After realizing that tattoos were more expensive than they thought, and they had all just about run out of money, the tattoo artist suggested a blue heart filled in with red ink. It was only $2.00.

A red heart sounded appealing to the group, so Corporal Aaron Norris went first. Everything went fine, until the artist started filling in the red. At that point, Norris' arm began to bleed profusely and the blood started running down his arm. The artist could not wipe the blood fast enough, but he managed to finish the heart. He put a big bandage on Norris' arm and asked who was next. The rest of the group, all wide-eyed, decided that maybe a tattoo was not such a good idea as they originally thought. Therefore, they all left and went back to the barracks.

Upon returning, Corporal Norris proudly showed off his bandaged right arm. However, since there had been so much blood, he was instructed not to take off the bandage until the next day. The next day, after taking off the bandage, Norris was afforded bragging rights, and he proudly strutted around the barracks displaying his new red heart.

By the next weekend, some of the guys mustered up enough courage to go back and get a heart put on their arms just like Norris'. As the days went by, more and more classmates went to get hearts on their arms, and eventually, the heart tattoos became a class symbol.

During his quest to locate classmates, Varela was able to find a few classmates at first, but after finding Lou Bellavio in New Jersey, he discovered that Bellavio had saved copies of his orders during training. The orders not only identified all of the classmates, but they also listed social security numbers. Therefore, Al was able to locate the remaining members more easily.

During his quest, Al was able to determine that nine classmates had passed away for various reasons, and he was unable to locate four others. Ultimately, he had located and made contact with the remaining class members, or family members. He also had made contact with the family members of the deceased classmates. In addition, he was able to locate the class former Sgt James O'Hallorans. Today, they are all in constant contact.

August 22, 2010, marked the 40th anniversary of Class 10-70 graduating from the Academy. In order to commemorate that anniversary, fourteen classmates met in St Robert, Mo., for a reunion. They were Louis Bellavio, Ron Boucher, Edward Smith, Wayne Cardy, Steve Weirson, Richard Petty, Frank Wheeler, Clarence Mikolichek, Glenn Stewart, Harold Hughes, Jerry Halley, Chris Mundy, Aaron Norris, and Alfonso Varela. Also in attendance were some family members of the classmates.

Some attendees arrived as early as Thursday, and the rest arrived on Friday. Those days were spent making small trips to Fort Leonard Wood and basically hanging out at the hotel reminiscing about the past 40 years.

However, on Friday evening, some of the classmates went to a local tattoo parlor to have their red hearts redone because over the course of forty years, the red ink had faded, so all that was left was a blue outline of a heart. In addition, some classmates who had not gotten the red heart forty years ago decided it was time get their insignia as well.

The class arranged a tour of Fort Leonard Wood with post officials. At the beginning of the tour, the class was taken to the new NCO Academy and given a very informative presentation of the history of the new multiple MOS NCO Academies, and they were able to watch candidates in class. Following that, the tour went through Basic Training and AIT complexes and some trainees were observed in training. The tour also traveled through and observed various other schools on Post

Following that, the class was taken to the location of their former Academy barracks. However, as mentioned, the old wooden barracks had long since been removed, and a new MP compound had taken its place. Nevertheless, the class was allowed to walk around the street and the MP parking where their former barracks had been located. Interestingly, a piece of old sidewalk had been preserved between the new asphalt that led into the MP parking lot. Many photos were taken of it, including attempts at some before and after shots.

The tour was concluded with lunch served at a mess hall in full operation, which was used by permanent party and trainees. The class was allowed to go through the chow line with the troops and enjoyed a very nice meal as they watched and listened to trainees going through daily training rituals.

On Sunday the classmates and their families met throughout the early morning in the hotel lobby and parking lot to say their good-byes. It had been 40 years since the classmates of 10-70 had seen each other, but the bond between them had not weakened. In fact, it has strengthened over the years, and they are vowing to reunite on an annual basis.