Major Keith Painter and I had exchanged a couple of letters and phone calls, first in 1990 and again in 2020, but had never actually seen one another since I left our artillery unit in August 1969. After the passage of 52 years, we finally got together for lunch in Bountiful, Utah, on October 19.
We were both officers in a heavy artillery battalion--The Proud Americans-- in Tay Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon along the Cambodian border. Major Painter, from Logan, Utah, was the Executive Officer, the second in command, who oversaw the everyday operations of our unit at Tay Ninh Base Camp. As battalion liaison officer, I lived and worked with South Vietnamese forces at their headquarters (HQ) in Tay Ninh City. Every day, I went to the battalion briefing at the Base Camp but returned to Vietnamese HQ before nightfall.
On April 11, 1969, I was surprised to receive an award at the battalion briefing for helping a Vietnamese orphanage. As I was leaving to return to my duty station, Major Painter urged me to relax for the evening, play poker with the other officers and spend the night at Base Camp. Had he not been quite insistent, I would have gone back to the Vietnamese HQ and likely been blown to bits that night. A North Vietnamese rocket hit an ammunition storage building at the HQ, setting off about 240 tons of assorted explosives and ammunition and killing over 140 Vietnamese soldiers, civilians and prisoners. Needless to say, I have always felt deeply indebted to the good Major.
When I finished writing a book about my Vietnam experience--Vietnam...Can’t get you out of my mind--I wanted to share it with Major Painter and was able to get in touch with him in early 2020. That led to our lunch in Bountiful--Keith with his wife, Marie, and me with my wife, Kelly. It was a great tonic in these troubled times to discuss our service and learn what had transpired in each other’s lives in the ensuing 52 years. None of the four of us found it necessary to bring up divisive topics. We just enjoyed our special time together.
Our get-together caused me to hearken back to my Vietnam service. The thing that left a lasting impression was the way service personnel related to one another. It was remarkable to be working together with so many people of different backgrounds from so many different places, including my Vietnamese counterparts. There was a camaraderie that is hard to explain. I can’t recall any heated political arguments or any people failing to carry out their part of the work as best they could.
There were people in the unit who were mightily unhappy with being there, but they still did their utmost to do their part to achieve the mission, to honorably serve their country. It was a remarkable experience, especially when compared to the sorry present state of affairs in America, where people are seriously divided over every sort of political and social issue, not being willing to bridge their differences or even to debate them in a civil manner, without threats and name-calling.
I think I can speak for many veterans who have honorably served this great country over the last decades--”Get a grip, people. We did not put our lives on the line for this country, just to have you tear it apart. We are all part of the same nation, so let’s try to get along for the common good.” We owe no less to our veterans on Veterans Day and every other day. And special thanks to Major Keith Painter for making the last 52 years possible for me.