The tranquil scene in Townsend on May 6 was much different than the surroundings were the last time Kent Goolsby and Penn Davidson saw each other 50 years ago. They were young men, then, serving their country in Vietnam.
Goolsby recalled that day, March 24, 1969.
“The last time I saw (Davidson) was when he tagged me to get on the helicopter to go the evac hospital in Vietnam when I was wounded,” Goolsby said. “The helicopter was nearly shot down, and two seconds off the pad, a mortar round hit right where the helicopter had been. It wounded the commander and shut the engine off the helicopter.” The helicopter was auto-rotating down, just about to crash into the other side of the valley, when the pilot hit a manual switch and the engine came back to life. “It was like an angel picked me up,” Goolsby said. “But that was the last time I saw him, when he made me get on the helicopter. He was the medic in my platoon.”
Davidson said, “We both died that day, I guess. So every year on March 24, we celebrate our ‘second birthday.’” Goolsby said, “We were nearly killed so many times that day. We were way beyond our nine lives.”
A time to heal
Goolsby, of Charlotte, N.C., and Davidson, of Orange Beach, Ala., are two of the 25 Vietnam veterans from 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, Recon Companies A-D who spent May 5-9 together in Townsend for the fifth annual reunion. For these men, who traveled to Tennessee from all over the United States, the reunion is a time of fellowship as well as a time to continue healing from the trauma of war.
Townsend resident Steve Newman, still known as “the lieutenant” by many of the men who attend the reunion, said, “The reunion is almost like a dose of medicine for some of these guys. One of the men who came four years ago said, ‘This is the first time in 50 years I’ve been with a group of people I can talk to.’” The men feel free to share memories, give and receive support, honor the service of those who made it back home and pay special homage to those who lost their lives in Vietnam.
As Goolsby said, “When you make friends like you were back then in Vietnam, that’s something that never goes away.”
Newman and his wife Mary plan the itinerary for the reunions, making sure the men and their families who accompany them have opportunities for lots of fun activities, as well. Tours of Cades Cove, golfing, fishing, ziplining, horseback riding, cookouts and viewing a display of military vehicles provided by the Knoxville Military Vehicles Club are only a sampling of what they could choose to do. A special treat this year was having Brian Hoffman, a Red Skelton tribute artist in Pigeon Forge, perform Skelton’s Pledge of Allegiance routine.
5,000th walking stick
On May 6, the veterans welcomed special guests to the conference room at the Tally Ho Inn, including Nathan Weinbaum, director of Veterans Affairs/Veterans Service Officer in Blount County, and Al North, a Blount County veteran, who was the recipient of the 5,000th walking stick provided by Steve Newman and Gene Webb, of Gene Webb Woodcarvings in Townsend. The walking sticks and canes are given to veterans free of charge in appreciation for their service. North was also presented with a wooden plaque recognizing his service.
“I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving than Al North,” Weinbaum said. “He’s an Air Force veteran, and he served in Vietnam with the 483rd Tactical Airlift Wing.” North was in Vietnam in 1968-69.
North has taught classes at the Blount County Jail for 11 years on Financial Peace and Work Force Readiness and serves as a mentor to inmates. He is a member of the Foster Care Review Board and also works with Celebrate Recovery, helping people overcome addictions. “Celebrate Recovery is deliberately, on a national level, reaching out to military veterans,” he said. A group dedicated to veterans has recently started at First United Methodist Church in Maryville.
After the presentations, Weinbaum spoke about benefits the veterans and their spouses deserve and how to acquire them. He advised the veterans to keep up with their health issues, especially conditions that could have been brought about by exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the military during the Vietnam War, 1961-1971. Some of the conditions include diabetes, cancer, heart disease and secondary conditions such as neuropathy and kidney issues. He also spoke about hearing loss, post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions directly related to a veteran’s time of service. Several veterans and their spouses asked questions on how to get help when the VA officer in their area was ineffective, receiving information from both Weinbaum and others in the group, including Davidson, who works on behalf of veterans in Alabama.
Band of brothers
James Barnes, of Garland, Texas, originally conceived the plan for the 1/8th reunions in Townsend. He served as a medic in Company D.
“This is great,” he said. “This year we have six new people who haven’t been here before. Everybody exchanges stories and we talk about Vietnam, where we were, what we did. It’s very therapeutic. I enjoy talking to people — I listen more than I talk. It’s real good to see people you were in combat with, see how they’ve progressed in their lives.”
“Capt.” Raymond Sanders, of Florida, said the reunions are about friendship and association.
“Sometime I can help somebody else to talk, to help get some things out of your system that you don’t want to talk to other people about,” he said. “It’s a way to get things out that you’ve been holding back for years.” He knows all about that after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “I didn’t think I had it,” he said. But after individual and then group counseling, his granddaughter told him, “You know what, Grandpa, since you went to those PTSD classes, you’re a much nicer man now.” He didn’t realize the changes until that moment.
Robert C. Moore, of Dickson, credits Sanders with saving his life. “He was Delta Company commander, and I was Bravo Company commander,” Moore said. “We operated together a good bit. We were in one good firefight together and he probably saved my life.”
He also mentioned the blessing of being with people who know what that time in Vietnam was like.
“This is a chance to get back together with these folks, show a little appreciation for what they’ve done,” Moore said. It helps him, as well; like many of his brothers-in-arms, he also has PTSD. “They know what I’m talking about, I know what they’re talking about,” he said. “We trust each other. We’ve been through the fire together. In some ways it helps. In some ways it causes you to think about things you’d rather forget about.
“We went to Vietnam with the idea that we were doing something really good for the country, that we were stopping Communism,” Moore said. “We felt if we didn’t stop Communism that our children would have to.”
Davidson agreed, and said, “I want people to understand that this was a terrible time in the history of our country, not ever politically correct. Every one of these guys made the decision to serve their country. I think if you asked anybody here, they’d answer the same way — that they’d do it all over again.”
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