GREENTOWN - The Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization’s reunion started off on a very personal note for Tom McCandless. As veterans and their families prepared to hoist the organization’s huge American flag during the opening ceremony, McCandless’ granddaughter’s voice echoed across the field. She had recorded an essay she wrote that described how her grandfather’s service has made an impact on her life.
“I read it, and by the time I got to the end of it, I got pretty emotional,” McCandless said. His granddaughter, Megan Ekart, wrote the essay to apply for a college scholarship. She won. “She read it at the August [HCVVO] meeting. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”
Last week was the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization’s 39th annual reunion, and veterans from across the country came to heal and catch up with old friends.
McCandless has been coming to the reunion for 34 years. He said it is healing to be among his brothers and sisters in the military. He has brought others with him over the years, and together they have formed a group called Boar’s Nest. Fellow Boar’s Nester Sam Lewis has attended the reunions since 2008.
McCandless and Lewis reunited in Washington, D.C., in November of 2007 at the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Even after 40 years, McCandless said they recognized each other immediately. McCandless was adamant that Lewis attend the HCVVO reunion with him that summer, but it took some convincing.
“I didn’t lose a thing in a field in Indiana,” Lewis said. Regardless, McCandless convinced him to give it a try. Lewis has been to every reunion since.
Another member of the Boar’s Nest, Jeff Cannon, has been attending the reunion for five years. Cannon is not a Vietnam veteran, but he served in the Gulf War.
McCandless said that as fewer Vietnam veterans return to the reunion each year, even more veterans from the Iran-Iraq War, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, and the Iraq War have joined in. He said the only difference between the groups is their age, and they are one family.
“You’ve got to adopt your little brother,” he said about adding Cannon to the group.
Joe Swisher, from Wabash, Indiana, has been attending the reunion for the past five or six years. Swisher is not a Vietnam veteran, but he served in Desert Storm. He said the younger veterans rejuvenate the older veterans, while the older veterans often mentor the younger ones.
“This isn’t just a party place, it’s a place where veterans can heal,” Swisher said. “I see it happen out here all the time. When I first came on these grounds, I could feel the peace.”
Swisher said it helps talking to other veterans because not many civilians can relate to their experiences in the military. He created a private space in the library of the main room where veterans can meet with counselors and therapists in person or over the computer. He said he has made a lot of progress since his first reunion.
“When I first came out here, I didn’t want to be around people. I’d come on my Harley and set up a little tent out here, and I didn’t want to be around crowds. But then I learned that nobody judges you out here,” Swisher said. “It’s judgment free. Whatever you’re going through, nobody’s going to judge you for it.”
Many veterans camp with family members and friends from their divisions. John Walker, president and co-founder of American Huey 369, said for 14 years his organization has brought back another reminder from the Vietnam War.
Walker said American Huey 369 began restoring Huey helicopters around 20 years ago. Their first restored helicopter had the tail number 369, and Walker said that restoration brought a lot of healing. They have continued to restore Hueys and hope to gain sponsors to build a museum.
The organization brings three helicopters each year to the HCVVO Reunion. They call the event at the HCVVO Reunion “The Sound of Hope” because hearing the helicopters was a hopeful sound for veterans when they were fighting.
“When they were out of bean, bullets, and Band-Aids, when they were injured and there were people dying in the combat zone, they were praying for that sound, that ‘womp’ sound of the blades, coming to get them,” Walker said. “That meant that help was on its way. That’s why they call that sound the sound of hope.”
Paul Cauley said the sound of the Hueys took him right back to Vietnam when he first came to a reunion, and he has not met a single Vietnam veteran who does not have a story about the sound of a Huey. Cauley, who has attended various reunions for veterans across the country since 2003, lives in Florida.
Cauley said it has been a long road to recovery. When he came home from the war, no one wanted to hire him because he was a Vietnam veteran. People would curse and spit at him, and he used to drink every night. He said he felt like something was wrong with him.
Most people were not appreciative of Vietnam veterans until many years after the war ended because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War. Cauley said it wasn’t until the Gulf War that people started to thank him for his service.
“There are a lot of tears,” Cauley said about being welcomed home at the HCVVO Reunion. “Many of [the other veterans] still say, ‘This is the first time I’ve been welcomed home in 50 years.’”
Now, Cauley works to support other veterans who feel the exact same way he did. He was on a committee that worked to get the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedicated, and he recommends a book and DVD set called “The Gift” to other veterans because it has helped his family understand what he went through.
Even with all the progress he has made, Cauley said the healing field at the HCVVO Reunion is still helping him heal.
“The first time I came here, I was back. And when I say back, I mean back in Vietnam,” Cauley said. “Each time I go to one of these, it gets easier to talk about it.”