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


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



Documentary uncovers scars of Vietnam

It’s well after midnight by the time Oscar Soliz clicks off his lamps and shuts down his computer. His brown eyes are strained, his neck and back are stiff, his hands tingle. He rubs his salt-and-pepper beard; it’s time for bed.

He’s just finished another 13-hour day producing a documentary about four local Vietnam vets and how their powerful memories have barely diminished with the passage of time.

The hour-long documentary, titled “Deep Scars,” features retired Staff Sgt. Edward Brown Jr., retired Sgt. Trini Cruz, retired 1st Sgt. William J. Johnson and retired Sgt. 1st Class Dion Soliz III. The veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, recount their struggles on the battlefield and off.

“I’m showing the feelings and fears of being in combat as well as its affect on their lives after returning home,” says Soliz, a self-taught videographer and owner of Ozman Visual Media Productions. “There are so many stories. So much had happened to them.”

The documentary opens with images and narration explaining the politics of the Vietnam War, the lives lost and the toll it took on men such as Brown.

“Hmm, lemme see, I’ve been recovering from my injuries for 44 years and counting,” Brown, 63, says with a chuckle. “Physically, I spent 32 months in various hospitals.” Brown was injured on May 14, 1968, in Binh Duong Province, Vietnam. In the uncut version of the film, Brown recounted how his fellow soldier Ron E. Clark fell into him after being hit by a grenade from a rocket-propelled launcher. “I looked into his eyes as he died,” Brown said. “His death was fast, and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer (alone).”

The documentary also recounts the hostile reactions many returning vets received from their fellow citizens.

Cruz spent 39 months in different hospitals recovering from his injuries. In the film, he tearfully recounts arriving back home in the United States still in uniform and walking with a cane. Cruz wanted a cup of coffee but he had no money. “I gave [the man behind the counter] one of my medals and said I’ll come back and pay for it. The man said, ‘We don’t take medals. We take cash here. I can’t give you a cup of coffee.’ We’re over there fighting this war, and nobody would give me a cup of coffee.”

Soliz is seeking a distribution deal for the film and, in the meantime, hopes to show it to various local veteran organizations. For now, he’s working on it primarily for the men featured in the video.

The documentary has been a year in the making, the last three months on editing alone

“You can get lost in editing,” he says. “Sure, I get tired and frustrated but that’s nothing. It’s a difficult documentary.”

“Deep Scars” had an effect on the subjects of the documentary.

“Being a part of Oscar’s movie is the first time I ever talked in-depth about my experiences in Vietnam,” says Dion Soliz, 64, Oscar’s brother. “And now I want my daughters to see the movie and understand what the nightmares and screaming at night were all about.”

It’s also had an effect on its director, who did not serve in Vietnam.

“I have a good life, but I still think I should have been over there,” Oscar says. “I have guilt of not going to Vietnam. But since my brother was enlisted, I couldn’t go; he wouldn’t allow it.”

Soliz’s only sibling served three tours in Vietnam (1967-1971) and was awarded the Purple Heart and four Bronze Stars.

“No need for mom to lose us both,” says Dion, explaining why he wouldn’t allow his younger brother to follow him into battle. “It wasn’t the politics so much as I felt it was my duty. But once you’re over there, family is all you live for. It keeps you going.”

Funding for the film came from $5,000 in prize money Soliz, 63, won in the 2011 Pepsi Challenge Grant. The program awarded grants for projects that benefit the community, environment and schools. While $5,000 is a pittance compared to what most films – even documentaries – cost, Soliz spent carefully and stayed within his budget.

“I bought the things I truly needed, like the green screen and software and some things I bought at a discount, like the Sony mc2000 camera.” Soliz said.

The film includes both comedic and painful recollections, such as Cruz’s having a tailbone removed, Soliz’s encounter with an elephant, Brown’s blown eardrums and the time Johnson was shot twice in two days.

Soliz says that for him, an unforeseen benefit of his working on the film is that he is now closer to his brother because he better understands Dion’s wartime traumas. “I’m trying to draw out the inner feelings of their reality. To understand how the wounded veterans survived during and after the war,” he says.

“I know my brother is real patriotic and feels plenty of guilt about not going over to serve in Vietnam,” said Dion Soliz. “But I tell him ‘Hey, I served your time and mine. I served for America, and that includes you.’ “

By, Elena Brown, Special to the San Antonio Express News

Elena’s Story_Doc uncovers scars of Vietnam

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

Memories flow at Vietnam Veterans Reunion

As they finish registering and making their way to the bunker, hearing aids and canes are of little consequence.

The gray hair and arthritis are forgotten. There’s no talk or thought of heart or liver or other ailments. The men are transformed into “fit-to-serve” as they pass through the threshold into the arms of their buddies.

“Welcome home, brother,” says a man to my father. “It’s good to see you back.”

My 58-year-old dad smiles. And the men hug.

The men of the Blackhorse 11th Armored Cavalry’s Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia embrace each other with the welcome they never received when they returned home from the war decades ago.

My dad, retired Army Sgt. Edward Brown Jr., and I try to make the annual four-day reunions together every year, as we did last week when it was in Colorado Springs. It’s our father-daughter time. It’s where stories I never heard at home are shared. Where people can sit at any table and look at pictures of teenagers in tanks thousands of miles away. Where most stories start with “Remember when?” or “How about the time?”

It’s where a gray-haired biker with tattoos chats with a grandfather who is an officer of a local homeowners association.

The Vietnam reunion is intense, but the slice of history is filling.

I was 13 when I went to my first reunion in 1987 in Louisville, Ky. I didn’t understand the hugs and songs of the ’60s being played every night.

I’ve attended seven of these reunions, and I’ve watched men return and mourn the men that didn’t. I now understand just how important the reunions are.

Through the years, my dad’s brothers-in-arms became my “honorary uncles.” There’s something comforting about knowing I can be anywhere in America and have a goodhearted man to watch over me.

The banquet this year included awards, prestigious speakers, thousands of dollars in scholarships for the children of men who served and video feeds from Blackhorse troopers in Iraq. Men were honored this year with the Bronze Star for actions of 35 years ago. Here, honor and valor never fade.

The “Blackhorse Salute” slide show signaled the end of the banquet program. Francis “Frank” Gowrie lit up a cigarette at the dinner table. Smoking isn’t allowed at the banquet, but no one complained.

“It’s nerves, baby,” my dad explained as he sipped from his beer. “This can bring up some bad memories.”

Intense images on the four giant screens reminded us — several hundred vets and their friends and family members — why we were here. Pictures from the air and ground showed men at war more than 30 years ago. A radio transmission of combat was played. It freshened the memories of good and bad.

I watched Gowrie, a retired New York City cop, getting increasingly emotional. His tears become my own. But we weren’t alone. My father grabbed my hand, and a member of Gowrie’s unit placed an arm around his shoulder.

During the 20th reunion memorial service at the Shrine of Remembrance, the chaplain asked the crowd if anyone would like to speak on behalf of the fallen. The men stirred, but no one moved. Moments passed and four men climbed the small hill under the warm sun and took to the podium. That was the day I heard my father speak.

He spoke to his brothers and their families about patience struggling with Veterans Administration red tape, of understanding the need to control vices and regaining lost faith.

“Where was God when I was in Vietnam?” he asked the crowd as he recounted Spc. Ron Clark falling into him during the fight when he was also wounded. Clark took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. His death was fast and his survivors should know he didn’t suffer, my dad said.

“God left me here for a reason,” dad said. “He made sure I came back.

“If and when you see a brother falling down, pick him back up.”

When the memorial concluded, a Fort Carson soldier played taps behind the flag snapping in the wind above.

Ron Betz, who was drafted, and my dad, who volunteered, are always selfishly inseparable during the reunions, but it’s OK.

Some of the “newbies” had to learn that when our dads, uncles and grandfathers exclude us it’s not intentional. This is an intense reunion of men who served in an unpopular war. There is a bond that defies race, religion and sometimes manners. Once they return from the shared memory, they’ll introduce and include us — we just have to be patient.

My dad and his buddies would tell me of May 14, 1968, when the 1st Platoon was hit.

“We let loose with everything we had,” dad said.

“It was pretty chaotic; it was a tough one,” Betz agreed. “We lost about five people.”

Dad took most of his injuries on his right side, receiving wounds in his shoulder, chest, hip and leg. The blast perforated his eardrums. He spent three years in the hospital and had 11 surgeries recovering from that one bad episode.

When all was said and done, he received the Purple Heart, Army Commendation, National Defense Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Army Presidential Unit Citation, Gallantry Cross Unit Citation, Army Valorous Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Vietnam Service, Combat Infantry Badge and Army Sharpshooter Badge.

The void that Vietnam left in the souls of vets grows smaller with each reunion, a place to remember and a place to heal.

First-timer Mackenzie Wink, 10, of Amery, Wis., arrived with her grandfather, Dirk McCloud.

“I’m glad my Gramps came back,” she said.

It’s a common feeling, because in the sea of faces, there is probably someone who served with and maybe even saved your loved one.

-Elena Brown

(written in fall of 2005 for The Gazette newspaper.)


Published in: on 11/11/2009 at 13:24  Comments (11)  
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