For more than 20 years, Army Capt. Nick Bollich often wondered how the soldiers who served under him in Vietnam were affected by the decisions he had made on a daily basis in the 1960s.
He wondered whether they resented him for putting them in harm’s way with decisions that may have seemed capricious and senseless.
But, Bollich knew, he was just following orders – orders that included sending his battalion into a combat zone with insufficient food and water well before the supply train could reach them. They were needed there. So he ordered his men to go.
Bollich rose to first lieutenant in the Army’s 59th Signal Battalion from 1963 to 1965 and then served in the Army Reserves though 1969. He kept in contact with other officers, but he lost touch with the lower-ranking soldiers who had been affected by his decisions.
Then, around 1990, he started going to reunions of his battalion.
About 15-20 of his former comrades showed up at these periodic reunions near Army bases in the ’90s. When Bollich, now 69, talked to those who’d served under him about his orders, they told him they hadn’t held the decisions against him.
“That took a big weight off me,” he said. “I’d been worrying about things that they didn’t have a problem with.”
For veterans, reunions with old military buddies offer chances to overcome the past, reconnect with it, relish it, and keep it alive. They offer veterans a chance to pick up where they left off with mates who were closer than siblings.
“When you serve in combat with people, it’s a very strong bond like no other,” said Marine Col. Michael Harrington, 77, a former artillery officer with the 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division who spent a year in Vietnam before being wounded in the arms, buttocks and legs by an exploding satchel charge. After six months recovering, he was stationed in California. Harrington joined the Marines in 1955 and retired from the Reserves in 1986.
The friendships are different than other friendships, said Sgt. Matt Chebret, 30, who left active duty with the Army in February 2009. They understand when life intervenes, preventing them from talking often. A conversation can last months, and when the friends talk again, it’s as if they were never apart.
“That’s the kind of relationship you build in that (combat) sort of lifestyle,” he said. “There’s impermanence in everything you do. You don’t know what you’ll do next or when you’ll do it. But the friendships are permanent.”
A member of the Houston branch of the Marine Corps Coordinating Council board of directors, Harrington talks to former Marines almost every day, and he goes to at least one reunion a year. But he still gets occasional e-mails from men he hasn’t seen since the war.
He’s seen vets reunite with former comrades they hadn’t seen since a Medivac flew the injured soldier away years before. “In most cases, it’s very emotional,” he said.
Bollich and his mates don’t talk about the old days when their families are around, he said. Others don’t understand what they went through no matter how many times they try to explain it.
But when it’s just the guys, they talk about those days. When they were in the battlefield, they didn’t know what else was happening or why it was happening, Bollich said. He didn’t know some of the tactics being used or battles being fought. The reunions are a chance to put those pieces together.
Nathan Fairbanks-Sherrill served in the Navy from 1939 to 1946, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he saw a notice of a reunion of his old U.S.S. Trenton shipmates.
Then in his late 70s, Fairbanks-Sherrill had been missing his old mates, so he and his wife Charmaine spent several days drinking highballs, sailing up and down the ship channel in Norfolk, Va., talking about old times and carousing with his old buddies.
“I have no words to describe how that felt to see those men again,” said Fairbanks-Sherrill, 90, who has lost many reunion details to dementia. “It was more damn fun than you could ever dream about. Everybody loved everybody.”
Sgt. Nick Low, 30, who served in the Marines from 1999 to 2007, keeps in touch with former comrades at the annual Marine Corps birthday balls each November and at a gathering thrown by a former master sergeant in Alvin. Former Marines from various years meet and swap war stories.
He and Chebret, who knew each other from college, also stay in contact with old comrades through Facebook.
“Technology has made the world a different place,” Chebret said. “It’s much smaller now.”