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Local veterans make return trip to Vietnam decades after war's end

George Fuller, Jr., of Grovetown, Frank Neal, Sr., of Martinez, and Jim Wilson, of Thomson, answered the call of their country 38 years ago heading to war in Vietnam.

In the past two years, the men and some of their comrades from the Augusta-based U.S. Army Reserve 319th Transportation Company answered calls within themselves. Seeking a sense of closure from their combat experience, they returned to the country where more than 58,000 Americans died in the fight against communism.

Mr. Fuller and Mr. Wilson returned from their second trip Oct. 17, while Mr. Neal took part in the first return visit in 2005.

"Hardly a day goes by we don't think about it," Mr. Wilson said of their tour together in Vietnam. On Veterans Day, the men remembered the lone soldier from their unit killed in combat in Vietnam, the thousands of others who died there and their friends who have passed away since returning to civilian life.

A Tour of Duty

Nearly all the soldiers in the 319th were from the Augusta area. They knew each other, trusted one another and the few men who added to the unit from the outside either gelled with the company or were moved out, Neal said.

The 319th re-supplied the 1st Division, 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and numerous other American combat brigades fighting the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong inside an area near the Cambodian border known as the Iron Triangle. Their transportation unit was a target of opportunity for ambushes.

Mr. Fuller, Mr. Neal, Mr. Wilson and their comrades drove atop 5-ton trucks burdened with high explosives and ammunition. The roads they drove were little more than trails cut by goat and cow herders, and land mines littered their routes.

Mr. Fuller said officially, their unit suffered seven "major" ambushes, though the convoys they rode were under daily attacks and smaller skirmishes.

"We would pull out with 100 or 105 trucks and sometimes we would get (to the forward operating bases) with 20," Mr. Fuller said. "They would just slaughter us."

During the 319th's tour in Vietnam, the unit received numerous Army commendations, 11 Bronze Stars, including three with Valor and three Purple Hearts; of which Mr. Fuller received one. In 1990, the Army commissioned a lithograph dispatched to members of the unit and archived in the Pentagon showing soldiers of the 319th fending off an ambush in the Iron Triangle.

Return Trips to Vietnam

When the three men last stepped foot in Vietnam, they were in their early 20s; young sergeants who had seen 11 months and 14 days of brutal violence. Now in their late 50s and early 60s, the men said they did not know how they would be received by the Vietnamese people during their first trip last year.

Vietnamese government officials were matter-of-fact and efficient during their first return to Ho Chi Minh City, Mr. Fuller said. But the men were well-received by the Vietnamese people and the staff of the famed Continental Palace Hotel where they stayed.

"Over there, the people now are just so friendly toward anybody," Mr. Fuller said. "They're just so kind and a pleasure to be around."

Mr. Fuller said the city he knew as Saigon was beautiful and the people appeared to be content. As a man who has traveled to much of the world, he said the city was bustling with life and was the most capitalistic looking communist city.

To a man, Mr. Wilson said the returning soldiers came to a realization during that first trip.

"This feeling and this verbalization simultaneously swept all of us and it was, 'Fellas, the justification we're looking for, it isn't here,'" Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Neal said they were also surprised to learn the youth in Vietnam knew little of the conflict and showed no animosity toward the Americans.

"I felt like I needed to get some closure to see if what we did was worthwhile and if we accomplished anything during the time the United States was over there," Mr. Neal said. "To be honest, while we were over there (last year), I got a different perspective."

In October, Mr. Fuller, Mr. Wilson and comrades Gary Gray, of Springfield, Ohio, and Walt Larsen, of Corona, Ca., returned to Vietnam and found air strips and base camps near the Cambodian border at Qan Loi, Dau Tieng, Phuoc Vinh and Tay Ninh.

The three men each say they are proud of have served their country when they received the call, but also have spent much of their adult lives trying to rectify the loss of so many American lives in Vietnam. Many members of the 319th reunite each year to reflect on their service to their country.

"We are proud within ourselves for our service, and feel that we lived up to our responsibility as young Americans to serve as instructed," Mr. Wilson said. "But (we) deeply regret the loss of 58,000 members of our generation in a war that we should have been given the opportunity to win.

"If our veterans of service in Iraq choose to return there 38 years from now, my wish is that they will feel proud and justified of their service and feel that the American lives given there were for a just cause," Mr. Wilson said.

Web posted on Thursday, November 16, 2006

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