Hallettsville veteran accidentally reunites with brigade commander
July 1, 2012 at 2:01 a.m.
Updated July 2, 2012 at 2:02 a.m.
Vietnam at a glance
• About 9,087,000 military personnel served in active duty during the Vietnam Era (August 1965-May 1975)
• About 8,744,000 personnel were on active duty during the war (August 1964-March 1973)
• 7,484 women served in Vietnam, of which 6,250 were nurses.
• 58,156 soldiers were killed in Vietnam.
With a sweeping eye, Joel Montgomery surveyed what looked like endless rows of foldable chairs littering the Fort Hood grounds.
The 61-year-old Hallettsville Vietnam veteran focused on an older gentleman sitting alone in the middle of the sequential repetition of chairs.
Mini-reunions went on all around them. Hands were shaken and hugs were given - memories were shared and tears were flowing.
This was one of the first true reunions for the Vietnam veterans, who, soon after the war ended, were welcomed home to insults like "baby killer." Some were even spat on.
Montgomery surfed his way through the chairs and plopped down next to the man. The man wore a 101st Airborne Division shirt.
"Were you in the 101st," the mystery man asked.
"Yes, sir," Montgomery said.
"Where?" the man continued.
"Camp Evans," Montgomery replied. "I was a door-gunner."
The man smiled a cheeky grin and looked Montgomery in the eye.
"Do you know who I am?" the man asked. "I was your brigade commander."
After more than 40 years, the last person Montgomery expected to see was retired Maj. Gen. Ben Harrison, who piloted the Huey helicopter on which Montgomery served as a door-gunner.
For years, Montgomery chose to remain isolated. He didn't want to know what happened to the many men he fought alongside.
He chose to keep them young, a memory of them he could hold onto forever.
But on that hot May day, there was no avoiding the reality. Montgomery had finally met someone who he could share memories with.
Montgomery decided to open up and share his memories and thoughts.
'We were great soldiers'
The Huey hovered over the mountainous terrain of the A Shau Valley in South Vietnam, as a 19-year-old Montgomery's eyes swallowed not only the beauty of the landscape, but also the hideousness of war.
Piloting the Huey was Harrison, a then 40-something-year-old.
"You really depend on those fellas keeping watch outside the aircraft," said Harrison, now 84. Harrison lives in Belton, close to Fort Hood.
A pilot and doorgunner become close, Harrison said. The two must trust each other. There is no learning - it just has to be.
So as the Huey, riddled with bullet holes, began to descend into the Valley, Montgomery let go. He braced himself as Harrison did his best to ground the helicopter with as little damage as possible.
Montgomery had Harrison's trust and vice-versa.
"When you got to fly with him, you knew you were doing something right," Montgomery said.
These memories of survival are some of the things the two talk about today.
The accidental reunion in Fort Hood was not the end.
The two now call each other and still trust in each other.
Instead, this time they don't have their lives in each others hands.
Even then, trusting someone with the memories forever etched in the mind's eye is difficult, Montgomery said.
"We were good solders. We were great soldiers," Montgomery said. "It was closure for me. You always ask the question, 'Why did I get to live when they didn't?'"
Today, Montgomery does contract work and lives in Washington state. However, he spends much of the year in the Crossroads.
As much as the memories of Vietnam still hurt, Montgomery has chosen to use his life positively through helping troops coming home today from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Montgomery looks at them and sees how young they are and he remembers - he always remembers.
"When you're 19 and you go to war, you see death. You see your friends die," Montgomery said slowly. "It hurts."
Last year, Montgomery organized a bus trip for some wounded soldiers to the Kemah Boardwalk near Galveston. The veterans go fishing and boating, much like Victoria's Warrior's Weekend.
Getting soldiers away for a weekend helps remind them that they are respected. It reminds them they have something to live for, he said.
"I hope this country thinks of the sacrifices they make every day," Montgomery said.
Montgomery's efforts to help give closure to today's younger veterans is something he wants to do on his own.
But for him to receive the closure he did in May was one of the last things on his mind.
"I remember them all," Montgomery said about the men he once fought alongside with. "They were young and full of life. You never forget about that, but you move on."