After a few emails back and forth, Gary asked for my address so he could mail me something but he wouldn't say what it was. Others had written reviews of my book, but they had simply emailed links to it. I wondered what it could be that he would have to send it through the mail. I just had to wait. So you can wait too, until I'm done telling you about Gary.
He grew up in Oregon in the 1950s. Like me and Eddy, he had nieces barely over a year younger than he was and a nephew born before him. At 20 years old, he was drafted and sent to Vietnam on Nov. 5, 1967, just in time to endure the worst year of all in Vietnam, the year of the Tet Offensive, the year that held the greatest number of American lives lost. The picture above shows Gary on the right, just outside of Saigon soon after Tet.
On the plane to Vietnam were three other guys from Oregon whom he had befriended at Basic and AIT; they all ended up in the 25th Infantry Division, which was the same as Eddy. Three of them ended up in the 2nd Battalion, 12th Infantry, in the Alfa, Bravo and Delta Companies, all based at Dau Tieng, the same base camp as Eddy. Eddy was in Charlie Company so they didn't know each other, but fought alongside each other at Tan Hoa, a 7 day battle I mildly described in my book; most likely they walked past each other while at base camp.
Bobby Eagleson was the friend in Delta Company. Gary said that when he read my book, Eddy reminded him of Bobby - a really great guy. One day Bobby shared with Gary his feeling that he was going to die, which may have been a premonition because he did not make it. It took Gary many years to summon the strength to visit Bobby's family. When he did, it was Veteran's Day 2006; he and his wife drove to the small town of Eddyville, Oregon. He nervously went to the door, and Bobby's 84 year old dad answered. Gary saw the striking resemblance to his friend, and they both wept. These are painful, yet healing moments. I know how much it meant to that dad to have Gary visit him, because my family felt the same way when Andy visited us in 2008. Andy was Eddy's best friend in Vietnam.
Gary's life has been haunted by more than this one loss. On October 7th, 1968, his platoon went into the village of Tam Dinh, 5 miles NE of Trang Bang. They were ambushed by the Viet Cong and before the battle had ended, seven of their platoon were killed: Aaron Ferguson, Ramon Flores, Nathaniel Kelley, Roy Koenig, Walter Rice, William Shuman and Ken Sills.
By the time Gary had returned home after his nightmarish year, he had lost 31 friends, all from the 25th Infantry Division, 29 of them from Bravo Company which he was in. On Memorial Day, every year, he carries each of those names in his pocket.
And that is what brought this man, Gary Ascher, to this place in time where he would give effort into creating something in honor of one more young man who lost his life in Vietnam. Though he never knew Eddy, after reading my book, he identified with him, his story, his family, and felt like he knew him or would have liked to have known him.
I came home one day to a package on my doorstep. I brought it in and saw that it was from Gary. I curiously and anxiously opened the box and what was inside brought instant tears. I pulled it from the box, held it up and couldn't stop staring at it with my blurry, teary vision. It was a perfect likeness of Eddy as a boy, on his horse, Smokey. I was transported in time. I was suddenly there, that picture was taken at Grandma and Grandpa's farm. It wasn't just any boy on a horse. It was Eddy and it transported me to our childhood.
I had to find out how Gary made this. He explained that he has a metal engraving machine that connects to the computer to make an exact replica of a photograph on aluminum. It's displayed in my living room and I treasure it beyond words, but not because of how it was made, but because of why it was made.
Yes, it represents Eddy, his life and his sacrifice, but when I look at it, it also represents the kindness of a stranger, a man who doesn't know me, who didn't know Eddy, who took the time to make this wonderful gift and ship it off to me. I know that it was made with pain, the pain of war, the pain of the past, the pain of loss, but it was also made with his heart, the heart of a Vietnam veteran who walked through jungles and bloodshed, the heart of one who wants to remember those who didn't get to finish out their lives; this gift in honor of Eddy was one more step in Gary's lifelong journey to heal from the scars of war and I hope that my joy in having received it has helped him in that journey.