Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

September 21, 2013

Rain dampens reunion, spirits remain high

Veterans continue to flow into the grounds on Ind. 26.

By Mike Fletcher Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — Mike Metzger of Detroit had his right eye shot out in Iraq in 2006 the same day Saddam Hussein was killed.

Suffering from PTSD after his stint in Iraq, Metzger found solace when he came to the Vietnam Veterans Reunion last year.

“I came with my VFW buddies last year,” he said Friday while walking through the 40-plus acre grounds on Ind. 26.

“Now, I can’t leave,” he said. “I love this place. I’ll be back next year.”

Serving with the Army’s 25th Division out of Hawaii, Metzger was sent to Iraq.

“I jumped out of helicopters and conducted Humvee patrols,” he said of his service. “I was shot in my right eye and was blown up several times. Now, I’m medically retired.”

Once he found the healing field, he knew he was where he belonged.

“I feel safer here,” he said. “It really is a healing field.”

Metzger, 33, is one of a growing number of younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan attending the reunions or who have become members of the veterans organization.

Even though the name says Vietnam veterans, the organization welcomes veterans of all wars.

“I’ve seen a lot more younger veterans this year,” he said.

As Metzger made his way around, veterans from across the country continued to flow into the grounds on the second day of the reunion.

Across the way, several soldiers from the D Company 815th Engineers educated a group of Taylor High School students and let them climb aboard a replica Vietnam-era gun truck called “Wild Thing.”

Along with the 5-ton gun truck, the unit had a 2 ½ ton gun truck called “I’m Not Happy,” and two other jeeps that were part of a convoy during the war.

“Any letter that I wrote home I started it with ‘I’m not happy’. So that’s what I named the truck,” said unit member Randy Recht, who served in Vietnam in 1971.

During Vietnam, Recht said he served on the original “Wild Thing” during convoys. After the war, he met John Pentangelo through his brother Marvin. He said John wanted to build a Vietnam-era truck. Randy then sent him a photo of the original “Wild Thing.” From there, they started collecting parts and in 2001 found a 5-ton truck and built the replica.

Since then, the unit and “Wild Thing” have been a reunion regular.

In 1969, the gun trucks were used to protect convoys, he explained. It was first built on a 2 ½ ton truck, which proved to be difficult to maneuver through the rough terrain. Then they mounted the gun box on a 5-ton model for a more powerful truck.

The truck saw action three times in Vietnam, including in 1971. Now, the unit takes the truck on tours to schools around the country to educate students on what the war was about and their experiences.

“We go to schools and talk to them about the war,” Recht said. “We didn’t talk to them about the blood and guts. We talked to them about what we ate, the climate and the importance of supporting veterans.”

One by one the students boarded the gun truck.

“I’m intrigued,” said Kyle Coate, 17. “I found [the veterans] to be optimistic and poignant. It was hard to talk to them. I was afraid to say something wrong.”

The day kicked off with its traditional opening ceremonies featuring two bald eagles.

With the birds perched on their handlers’ arms on the stage and the Greentown American Legion Color Guard standing at attention, hundreds of veterans stood silently and saluted the flag as the song “8th of November” rang out on the loud speaker.

The song by Big & Rich was a tribute to the 173rd Airborne, which was ambushed by the Viet Cong during Operation Hump from Nov. 5 to 8, 1965.

The eagles were brought to the reunion by Army veteran Walter “Bird Man” Crawford, who operates a bird sanctuary in St. Louis.

Once the opening ceremonies ended, some veterans made their way back to their campsites to get out of the rain while others gathered inside the veterans organization’s day room to catch a glimpse of the eagles and to stay dry.

Rain or shine, the reunion continues today with the National Anthem at 10:30 a.m. The reunion concludes Sunday with a closing prayer service at 9:30 a.m.