Vietnam veterans reunite in Victoria
By by jennifer preyss
Sept. 24, 2010 at 4:24 a.m.
More than a decade has passed since Chester Hanzelka, a native Texan, and Robert Haggerty, the Yankee Pennsylvanian last saw each other.
During the Vietnam War in 1965, the men spent a year as hooch mates serving in the U.S. Army's 25th Infantry Division.
By day, they were Spec. 4 gunners, operating a variety of machine guns and missiles. By night, the 20-somethings hung out beneath their hooch tent and exchanged not-so-friendly ideas about the North and South.
"We always fought every day - the Civil War, over and over and over," Hanzelka, 64, said, smiling. "It was more a pastime than anything else."
"We butted heads, but at the same time we counted on each other," Haggerty, 65, said.
Today, Hanzelka and Haggerty are noticeably older, their hair somewhat grayer, but the friendship they formed in Vietnam 45 years ago is as alive today as it was the day they met - which is unusual considering they've only seen each other twice since they were shipped home from war.
"It's like a bond as close as brothers," Hanzelka said, about Haggerty. "I'd have given my life for him, and he would have given his life for me."
Deciding too many years had passed since their last visit, Hanzelka and Haggerty agreed to rendezvous in Victoria this week to exchange wartime memories and catch up on the past 11 years.
Haggerty is a retired police officer and lives near Pittsburgh, Pa. and Hanzelka is a retired independent petroleum consultant, and lives in Thomaston.
Almost immediately, the men dredged up old stories about their former selves: two young men from completely different geographical regions; both drafted into the military, and excited to serve their country.
"It was our duty, the country called us and we went," Hanzelka said.
But when the excitement wore off, and the realities of war and death set in, the men's attitude of Vietnam and the war they were fighting, seemed to shift somewhat.
"To this day I regret it," Haggerty said. "I can't say I enjoyed any of it, except that I met (Hanzelka) and a couple of other good people. But it was a year of hell."
The men said their days consisted of bullets and missiles exploding at all hours of the day, and there were multiple occasions where they were forced to seek refuge beneath sand bunkers for protection. And then there were the everyday discomforts of agonizing heat, bathing in rivers contaminated with Agent Orange, and wearing the same soiled fatigues day after day.
"We tried to change our socks as often as possible, but basically, you wore what you had and bathed when you could," Haggerty said.
But even while living in extreme conditions, acutely aware of the imminent threat of death, Hanzelka and Haggerty found plenty of opportunities to keep themselves entertained. When they weren't getting into trouble, Hanzelka said they would burn peanut butter and play cards by the flames, or sit around the hooch and talk about the girlfriends they left behind.
But there was mischief to be had, including nights of drinking at local Vietnamese pubs.
"They liked to party as much as we did," Hanzelka said of the Vietnamese patrons.
Haggerty also recalled a night where his friend wandered into an off-limit area and ended up in military jail.
"All you did was sit there and think about what you did," Hanzelka said smiling, calmly remembering the events of his night behind bars.
Haggerty also remembered several evenings where Hanzelka, or Texas Ears as Haggerty called him during the war, risked both of their lives for a cigarette.
"I smoked back then too, but I would cover my cigarette. I'd turn my body and get down, and turn my cigarette inside my fingers where it's cupped and took puffs like that, so we wouldn't be seen," Haggerty said. Hanzelka "just sat out there, leaned back . and smoked. I said, 'You're going to get us killed' and he said, 'You only die one time.'"
Hanzelka also had a nickname for Haggerty - the P.A. Pimp.
"Texas Ears and P.A. Pimp, that's just what we called each other," Hanzelka said.
For the Texan and Yankee, it was the best and worst time of their life.
"I have some fond memories, and I have some bad memories," Haggerty said.
Agreeing with Haggerty, Hanzelka added, "And when it was over, you felt lucky you made it."
When Texas Ears and the P.A. Pimp finished their reunion, Haggerty shook his friend's hand and left Victoria shortly after.
"When we say goodbye, I hope it's not the last goodbye, but at our age you just never know," Haggerty said.
If the men never have the opportunity to shake each other's hands again, they overwhelmingly agreed they'd be friends for life.
"Absolutely, of course we will be," Haggerty said. "Isn't that right Texas Ears?"
With that, Hanzelka smiled, and quietly nodded back at his friend.