A Connection to Heal

On April 8, 2004 Sandra Fillon was on her computer. She clicked the ‘submit my comment’ button, closed her eyes and let out a small breath of air. It wasn’t a comment she submitted but more of a plea; and it was finally sent.

“I am looking for anyone that knew my father Robert Graham Curl. He was KIA 12/2/69 in the province of Phuoc Long. I never knew my father; I was almost 3 years old when he was killed. He is a stranger that I know from pictures. I am now 37 years old and with a child of my own and long to speak with anyone that knew him or was with him on the day he died. My mother passed away and all the answers to the many questions that I have of him passed away with her. I basically know his name, that he was from Walled Lake Michigan and he was only 24 years old when he died. He was a SSGT with the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment F Troop 2nd Squadron. Any information you might have would be greatly appreciated.”

The posting was placed on the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia (11ACVVC) guestbook for those seeking information about people killed in action (KIA). Sending out the plea wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was the waiting. And once the fifth anniversary of her web posting came and went she frankly admitted that she sort of forgot about it. “I was kind of fishing anyway,” she rationalized.

One afternoon, Terry Thomas, 63, hopped on his computer and began looking through his old regiments’ website. While he’d known of the 11ACVVC he joined the organization this year. It was on their website he saw Fillon’s posting on the guestbook. He said his only thought was, ‘I’ve got to get a hold of her’. He immediately called the number and left a voice message. “Hi. I served with your father in Vietnam. Please give me a call.”

The pair separated by more than 1,300 miles—Thomas lives in Kansas and Fillon lives in Florida—was united by a seven-year old web posting.

“When I got that message, I just about fell out my chair.” Fillon said. “I couldn’t wait to give him a call!” They spoke for hours. “We both cried and laughed and cried some more,” said Thomas. “So much for me being a manly man. I was just so happy to have found her.” By that weekend they had spoken on the phone numerous times were already Facebook friends.

Thomas began filling Fillon in on how he knew her father. Thomas a Vietnam volunteer first met SSG Robert Graham Curl, his drill sergeant, during basic training in Ft. Knox in 1969. The last time Thomas saw SSG Curl was just a few months later in December. “I didn’t think ‘Oh, that’s my drill sergeant,’ I was just happy I saw somebody I knew,” said the M16 gunner. Thomas wasn’t in Vietnam long before he was hit on his right side and left temple during the firefight in the Phuoc Long Province, South Vietnam. He was standing in-between SSG Curl and SSG Robert Raines. Thomas laid wounded and a few inches from him, SSG Raines and Curl were dead. Both men were on their third tour of duty in Vietnam.

“Of all the people that I could have found it’s the one guy that was next to him when he died,” said Fillon. “Listening to Terry, I was bawling like a baby.”

The September reunion of the 11thACVVC in Orlando was just the perfect time to meet face-to-face. As the day approached, Thomas had some trouble sleeping, this time not triggered not by the memories of Vietnam but by the excited anticipation of meeting fellow troopers and most importantly, meeting the daughter of his dead sergeant Sandra Fillon. “I really couldn’t sleep then. When something you know is about to change your life it’s hard to rest,” he said.

The Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia is a non-profit corporation that aims to honor those that fought and died during Vietnam. They were founded in 1985 and began having annual reunions in 1986. More than 1,100 people and 82 “first-timers” were in attendance during the reunion. “Many (first-timers) didn’t know what to expect but they felt right at home as soon as they walked in the door and saw the first Blackhorse insignia,” said the president of 11thACVVC Allen Hathaway. “Once I was there I felt a warm welcomed,” said Thomas. “This reunion, even though it’s my first, has sparked something in me and will not be my last.” With next year’s reunion in Indianapolis, IN, the pair hopes to make a stop in Michigan to visit SSG Curls’ headstone.

On a sunny Florida Sunday Sandra and Terry sat poolside and shared 43-year-old memories. “He’d carry a picture in his breast pocket and no matter how many times you’d seen it he was happy to brag about his daughter,” said Thomas. “He loved her deeply.”

Fillon knows that picture. She has a picture of her father holding up a picture of her. “Finding Terry is like finding a lost family member,” she said. Thomas agreed, “I have another daughter in Sandra.”

The pair discovered that as Thomas dealt with Post Tramatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) memories and the ‘survivors guilt’ of losing a friend Fillon never knew he died in Vietnam. Her Korean mother was notified of his death a year afterwards when a birthday card returned.  She was later told her father died in a car accident. “Because my mother could never speak or write English. I think the misinformation was due to the lack of translation,” said Fillon.  In the early 70s her mother married and brought her to America. Sadly her mother died never knowing the truth. It would take 30 years before Fillon discovered her father’s name and the circumstances surrounding his death on the Virtual Wall (www.virtualwall.org). SSG Robert Graham Curl, F Troop, 2nd squadron name is on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C at Panel W15, Line 16 and is buried in his home town of Walled Lake, Michigan.

“Once I discovered this I began digging. Searching for any and all information about him,” said Fillon. SSG Curl wasn’t married to Fillon’s Korean mother and as Fillon tried to reach out to her father’s family she was met with chilly reaction. “Me, a mixed raced child of their dead baby brother who died while fighting in Vietnam was like opening a very old and painful wound. It hurt, but I understood. Maybe they’ll be open to speaking to me later,” she said. “Meanwhile I figured I’d try other ways to find out about my father.”

She has discovered various websites such as findagrave.com and togeterweserved.com where she was able to find more people that knew her father, including her fathers’ high school classmate.

Just before getting Thomas’ message Fillon posted this on myfallensoldiers.com: “I am now 45 years old, almost twice the age you were when you died at 24. We never met in person, we’ve only seen pictures of each other. My mother never got over you and somewhere in the background your memory was always kept alive. I wish life turned out differently and you would be a 66 year old grandfather enjoying the latter part of his life but that wasn’t God’s plan. You have lived on in my heart though and you will never be forgotten.”

This meeting astonishes Fillon and Thomas, a meeting 43 years in the making.

“I’m sure Sandra is missing some pieces about her father,” said Terry as Sandra’s brown eyes swelled with tears. “And I’m excited to fill in those missing pieces,” he said as he cupped Sandra’s hand. Their new relationship is sealed. They vow to be a part of each others lives because when it’s all said and done, Sandra misses her dad and Terry misses his friend and through their union SSG Robert Graham Curl’s spirit remains.

Thomas said, “After all these years I’m glad to let Sandra know she was high on his love list.”

-Elena Brown

Special to the Emporia Gazette

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Originally Published in Emporia Gazette Pull-out Section 11/05/12

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