Marines feel lucky to be at reunion
by Jan Schlain
The guys at the 2013 reunion of the 3/27 Marines were lucky enough to make it home from Vietnam, and maybe even luckier to make it to Weber's Inn all these years later. But maybe none is luckier than Melvin Cox. "I got shot up on the seventeenth of May," he tells me. The year was 1968, and the Third Battalion of the Twenty-Seventh Marine Regiment had been in Vietnam for just ninety days.
Cox was shot three times. "I'm the one who played dead in the field," he tells me in a loud, gruff voice. "They hit me at eight in the morning, the second time about two-thirty, and then they hit me again, and I went 'ohhhh,' and they shot me in my rear end. By the time they put me on the helicopter at ten to ten, it was about fourteen hours [since he was first shot]. I'm a miracle to be alive."
It's hard to tell how lucky Ann Arbor stonemason Tom Fuleky feels. He's been telling me about this three-day event for months, asking me to be his guest about a dozen times, and now here it is: sixty-five Marines reminiscing with their spouses and friends, more than 100 people in all, gathered for the closing dinner and program. A perfect gentleman, Tom had invited me to sit at his wife's table, but I chose to join Cox against the wall by a small, white-clothed table where no one sits. The "missing man" table honors the Marines who didn't make it.
The Weber's banquet room is lively and full, but Fuleky's not happy: he didn't know he would be sitting at the head table, didn't dress for it, and treated his discomfort with wine that's not mixing well with the cocktail of medications he takes for his hand tremor and post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Fuleky, like many of the vets, the reunion has been an emotional rollercoaster. "It was because of the Tet Offensive
we were sent over," he told me earlier. The Communists announced a weeklong truce for the national New Year holiday at the end of January--then launched surprise attacks all over the country.
With the Marines scrounging for manpower, Terry Rigney was transferred to the 3/27 from an engineering battalion. "A lot of other people were mechanics or motor transport ... we did not have enough 0311s--infantrymen--to fill an entire battalion." With Rigney and other specialists filling out the ranks, the battalion was immediately sent to Vietnam.
Rigney remembers getting the news like it was yesterday. "It was like eight-thirty at night. I was sitting on my footlocker, writing a letter home into my tape recorder, and the duty NCO of the barracks came through and started calling out names. 'Here you go--you're going to Vietnam. Here you go--you're going to Vietnam. Here you go. Nam.' When? 'Tomorrow morning.'
"We ended up coming to what they call the rocket belt area, which is just south of Da Nang, where the Vietcong would set up rockets and shoot at the air base in Da Nang. We were there to go on patrols to stop these rockets from being fired." Out of about 1,200 men in the 3/27, Rigney says, "we had 80 percent casualties ... eight out of ten were either killed or wounded."
"I still have nightmares," Fuleky says. "You're never going to lose that. You'll never lose the reaction to loud noises, and of course diesel fuel."
Asked how he deals with his PTSD, Fuleky admits, "Not very well. I think a lot of it is the treatment I received in Ann Arbor. I was very angry when I got home. I remember, in my wife's apartment, tearing down anti-war posters ... Ann Arbor was a hotbed for the anti-war movement."
"It's like burning a brand in your brain, you can never erase," says reunion MC Andy Boyko. He served two tours in Vietnam and drove up to the reunion from Pisgah Forest, North Carolina. Certain triggers, like the smell of blood, "will bring back the thoughts, fears, and smells of your trauma."
Fuleky leaves before the evening ends--he says he'll get too emotional if he stays. As he told me they would, the vets, their friends, and their spouses form a circle that goes all the way around the room. Holding hands, they sing along with Lee Greenwood:
... And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.
And I gladly stand up, next to you and defend her still today. 'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.
[Originally published in June, 2013.]
On June 6, 2013, Kathy wrote:
I want to thank all of you for the sacrifices that you made. I also want to apologize that you were not welcomed home as the heroes that you are. May God bless all of you and please try and remember that there are many that are grateful to you and honor the sacrifices that you made. You are my heroes! : )