Bridging the Past

Bridging the Past

The day hadn’t been anything special as he sat and filled out the warranty guarantee card for the weed-eater he just bought in a local lawn care store. Another day, another errand, he thought.

The salesman looked at the card. A rush of recognition, a wide smile and a hint of sadness flashed across his face.

“Oh wow, I used to know a Ron Clark back in high school. One of my best friends. Died fighting in Vietnam,” said the salesman.

“Yeah,” he said nodding his baseball-capped head. And with a simple smile he stated, “That was my dad.”

Ron K. Clark, 43, is the only son of Blackhorse Trooper PFC Ron E. Clark. Clark senior was 22 years old when he was killed in action on May 14, 1968 in Bin Duong Province, Vietnam and is buried in Indianola, Iowa. He died three months before his only son was born. Clark’s name is located on panel 60E line 009 of the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C.

Ron didn’t know too much about his father and his family didn’t talk much about him. His mother remarried when Ron was a year old. It wasn’t until he was well into adulthood that people began to open up to him about his father.

“They’d tell me I have the same personality. That I’m quiet and laid back just like he was,” he said.

Gerry Costa served with Ron’s father in A-Troop. They were friends and even shared a birthday. Costa frequently writes memorials on the Virtual Vietnam Wall to his fallen friend. One entry from May 15, 2001 states: “[sic] Hello again my friend. Just wanted to let you know that after all these you are not forgotten. I toasted you yesterday at 4pm just like every year. I will never forget you or the time we spent in Nam. I am very, very sorry I could not have protected you better and kept you from harms way. Allons always.”

Costa visited the Clarks in Iowa in 2003. They went to the grave site and placed a Blackhorse patch on the headstone. Ron could sense the visit was a part of a real healing process for Costa and chose not to bring up many battle memories. “I know Gerry carries a lot of Vietnam on him,” Ron said. Even though they didn’t talk much about the war, Ron didn’t mind. “He’s a good man, and I’ve made a dear friend.”

Having met Costa, Ron was invigorated and motivated to learn more about his father, the Blackhorse regiment and, most importantly, attend a reunion.

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.  In 2006 Operation Embrace was formed. Operation Embrace strives to locate, notify and welcome the family members of the men killed-in-action to the reunion. This year, Ron was just one of the 11 family members of KIAs that came and joined the 1,063 people, which included surviving soldiers and their families, at the August reunion in St. Louis, Missouri. Some of the men he met included Edward Brown Jr. and James “Jim” Sowinski, men that served with his father.

Retired SSG Edward Brown Jr. served with A-Troop from 1967-1968 and had been in touch with Ron through Costa for about four years. They had spoken on the phone and thru Facebook but had never met face-to-face. Brown was nervous and delighted when he was informed Ron would attend the reunion.

“I know he wants to know more details of the day his dad was hit. It’s hard, reliving that— And to share that with him,” Brown said with a heavy sigh. “But I will.”

Brown recounted Ron E. Clark falling into him during the fight. Clark took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. “His death was fast and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer (alone).” Brown said. “I looked into his eyes as he died.” While Clark died during that fight, many were injured including Brown. The blast perforated his eardrums and he received injuries on his right side, with wounds in his shoulder, chest, liver, hip and leg. Brown’s recovery included 14 surgeries and a skin graft that took nearly three years in the hospital to recover.

“I owe Young Clark and his family. To answer any questions if I can, and to let them know he did not die alone.” Brown said. “God left me here for a reason. It’s my responsibility to share that Clark died a hero. He had a cause.” For his ultimate sacrifice Clark was awarded a Bronze Star with Merit, a Purple Heart, National Defense, Vietnam Service and Vietnam Campaign medals.

“I always wanted to know if there was something significant on the day my father died. But I learned it was a typical day in Vietnam. Sometimes people died and sometimes they didn’t,” Ron said.

The Army was hit hard in 1968 reaching more than 10,500 deaths that year, according to statistics founds on The Wall-USA.com, which is a 15 year old website dedicated to honoring those who died in the Vietnam War. Like a weighted backpack, many survivors carry the Vietnam experience with them in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although PTSD is often associated with Vietnam veterans, it appears in veterans of all wars and eras. Once known as Battle Fatigue and Shell Shock, PTSD symptoms may include intrusive thoughts, distressing dreams, flashbacks and irritability. It can also mean a reduced ability to concentrate, experience pleasure, feel tender emotions or imagine a positive future. Many vets are finding support when learning to cope with their Vietnam experiences. During the reunion psychologist Dr. Candace Drake and daughter of a Blackhorse trooper, Dennis Drake (HHT 3/11), hosted a veteran’s seminar explaining PTSD and the options available for veterans. Brown attends a fully packed weekly PTSD group at Audie Murphy VA Hospital in San Antonio, TX. “Meeting Young Clark has helped me with my guilt but I’m still sad Clark never met his son, but when I go back home, I’ll have a sigh of relief,” he said.

For about four days the fellowship is visible as stories flow in “The Bunker”.

In military terms the bunker is usually a reinforced concrete underground shelter. Here, at the reunion, it’s a place where the men embrace each other with the welcome they never received when they returned home from the

war decades ago. This is where they laugh and cry over memories, photos and have a beer or three. “I’d never thought I’d be sitting here laughing and having a beer with Clark’s boy,” Brown said with excitement. “Brown wasn’t the only one thrilled to meet “Young Clark;” James ‘Jim’ Sowinski

contributed to the shared memories of Ron’s father. “It’s good to meet Clark’s son! I got a clear picture of his dad. Sowinski said. “Everybody’s got a piece of something to give Young Clark.”

This is an exceptionally intense reunion of men who served in an unpopular war. There is a bond between them that defies race or religion. And the void that Vietnam left in the souls of vets grows smaller with each reunion, it is a place to remember and a place to heal.

“It’s important for me to be here. I know that Ed and Gerry have a lot of guilt. But I don’t look at it that way,” Ron said. “I’m glad my dad had good friends over there that were with him when he died. I’m here to thank those guys that were there with my dad.”

Ron still sees the salesman in the local lawn care store. He likes to talk with him about his dad. Ron said, “With the guys from Blackhorse, attending the reunion and the salesman, well, its just another thing that makes me feel a connection to him.”

-Elena Brown

Published in Thunder Run 4th Qtr, 2011

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Son finally gets fuller picture of ‘SGT. MAC’

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Mc-Cullough has been trying to find information about the man in the family photo albums alongside his mother.

The man whose picture sits in a frame on her china cabinet.

The tall man with the piercing blue eyes, similar to his own.

The man who was his father.

“I used to sneak around the house and look at the old photo albums and newspaper articles that my mom had,” he said. “I’ve always been wondering just who my dad was.”

Sgt. 1st Class Alfred McCullough was killed in Vietnam when Mike was 1 year old.

“I wonder how I would have turned out had he been around,” Mike McCullough said.

After his father’s death, his mother moved the family from Germany to Colorado Springs, never remarrying.

Mike McCullough was 37 when he started going on the Internet to search for information about his father. Now 40, the Pikes Peak Community College employee hit pay dirt over the weekend after he and his mother were invited to attend a reunion of his father’s unit in Louisville.

Silver-haired men gathered around a table to meet and share their 40-year-old memories and thoughts about “Sgt. Mac.”

Alfred McCullough served in the Army for 12 years and was 33 when he was killed by small-arms fire in Binh Tuy, South Vietnam.

He is buried at Fort Riley in Kansas.

He left behind five children; Mike is the youngest.

“I knew right off the bat that was Sgt. Mac’s kid when I looked in those blue eyes,” Ron Betz said. Alfred McCullough “was a tall quiet man with a thick reddish mustache. I remember he died in the morning. We lost three men that day.”

Retired Sgt. Edward Brown Jr. added, “He was a gentleman’s soldier. He brought his point across in a smooth way. He was a real good man that took good care of us.”

Both men served under Alfred McCullough in Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry A-Troop in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968.

The McCulloughs were contacted by the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia this year.

The organization aims to honor those who fought and died during Vietnam. It formed Operation Embrace last year to locate, notify and welcome the families of men who died into the “Band of Brothers,” said Charles Schmidt, president of the organization.

Mike and his mother, Johanna, represented one of about 60 families that attended alongside the 1,500 members in Louisville over the weekend.

Johanna McCullough, 72, brought military photos and newspaper articles to the reunion, including an article about her receiving her husband’s Silver Star for service in combat.

“There are more photos I can bring next year” when the unit will reunite again in Chicago, she said.

“When I saw ‘McCullough’ on the name tag I thought, ‘That’s Sgt. Mac’s boy!’ and gave him a big hug,” said Jack Morrison, 59. “I didn’t cry, but I was close.”

“McCullough was my platoon sergeant,” Morrison said. “My memory is not what it used to be, but I told him (Mike) what I could about his father.”

It was far more than Mike McCullough had known before going to Kentucky.

“I do wish there was more discussion about my father when I was younger, but I’ve discovered it’s never too late to learn about your family,” he said.

Mother and son said the weekend brought them closer.

“It’s so nice to know our family was not forgotten,” she said.

Mike said all he wanted was to get a bit of information about his father.

“And now, through these men, I have a stronger bond to him,” he said.

(Published in the Colorado Springs newspaper, The Gazette on September 10, 2007)