Columbus Man Reunites
Vietnam War Comrades
July 16, 1999
Patrick Malone was the first of the three men to leave Vietnam, shrapnel from an artillery shell having shattered his spine. It left the 20-year-old man a paraplegic. Gone was his dream of resuming his career as a rodeo bronc rider. But he did go home with a Silver Star.
Second Lt. Jim Kurtz, also 20, was the next to depart, arriving back in the States the day after Richard Nixon's inauguration in 1969. He hooked up with an old pal from 'Nam, visited Malone in a Long Beach, Calif., VA, hospital, and went on a drinking binge.
Ben Clarke, the old man of the group, survived the war without a scratch, just as he had managed to walk away from World War II and the Korean War unscathed. He was the "lifer" of the bunch, a 27-year Army veteran. As his unit's top sergeant, Clarke was the gruff ol' grunt men looked up to, including the baby-faced ROTC grad in charge of the platoon.
When Clarke returned to the States, he was shipped to Taegu, a remote posting in South Korea. A year later, he retired his sergeant's stripes and came back to Columbus.
He didn't keep in touch with Malone, Kurtz or the other 50 members of the 2nd platoon, Battery H of the 29th Artillery, though he thought of them often. He'd been through a lot with those guys, from the day he arrived in the country, the evening the Tet offensive began, until early '69 when his tour was complete. He had pictures of his men and pictures of his babies, the Jeep-mounted search lights designed to provide infrared illumination of possible enemy locations. He could take 'em apart and put 'em back together before most guys could read the sports scores in their "Stars and Stripes" newspaper.
But as the '60s turned into the '70s, '80s and '90s, Clarke's thoughts turned to other things. He spent 15 years working as a Job Corps official in Franklin, Ind., before retiring for good in his hometown of Columbus in the mid-'80s.
One night last year, Clarke's sleep was interrupted by a telephone call. "Cowboy" Malone was on the other end.
"He said wasn't it time that me and him and Kurtz got back together again," said Clarke, as fit at 76 years of age as most men are in their 30s. "I'd never dreamed of seeing any of those men again."
Thirty years after they had first met in the tiny Vietnamese village of Dong Tam, Malone, Kurtz and Clarke were reunited last month at Kurtz's home near Washington, D.C.
It was Malone, who has been on medical retirement since May 13, 1968, the day his nightmare began, who instigated the reunion. Finding Kurtz was easy. He had stayed in the Army, rose to the rank of colonel, and retired in 1998 to work at the Institute of Defense Analysis, a think tank that does work for the Defense Department.
Finding Clarke was something else, however.
"My wife suggested we hire a locator service," said Malone via telephone from his home in Pleasant Hill, Ore. "It took a while, but we were finally able to find Sergeant Clarke."
Once the three men had learned of each other's addresses, Kurtz shared with them a term paper he had written while attending the National Defense University in 1988.
He wrote of his first few days in Vietnam: "The thought that everyone else would be as green as I was almost made me turn green for real. But then I met the man who was to be my saving grace for the whole 12-month tour, and whose example of professionalism inspires me to this day." That man was Master Sgt. Clarke.
Though not one to blush, Clarke did manage a barely audible "aw shucks!" when he heard Kurtz's comments.
Kurtz, though 25 years younger than the first sergeant, was the ideal commander, said Clarke. "I felt comfortable with him from the get-go. He understood our mission and more than that he understood the men who served under him. I thought he might have a good future in the military after he left Vietnam."
The three soldiers, though separated by distance and decades, picked up right where they left off in '68 and '69 when they met at Kurtz's place.
"I can't tell you how important that meeting was for the others, but for Dad it was an unbelievable experience," said Eric Clarke, a coach and teacher at Marshall Middle School. "He's kept a lot of his wartime experiences inside because he really had no one to talk to about them -- until last month. Then they couldn't get him to shut up."
Kurtz, Malone and Clarke made a pact before they went their separate ways: They won't wait 30 more years before they talk again to one another.
All content © Copyright 1999 Ledger-Enquirer
and may not be republished or framed without permission.
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Columbus, Ga. 31902-0711
Permission to republish this story was granted on July 21, 1999, by Mick Walsh, the author!
Photograph courtesy of Pat Malone!