Teller's 'The Reunion' Wins Inaugural Veterans Prize

James Teller was the winner of the 2017 Veterans Writing Prize.

The three finalists - Craig Tschetter, Brookings; James R. Teller, Sioux Falls (seated); and Timothy Fountain, Sioux Falls - of the 2016 Veterans Writing Prize presented their submissions at the 2016 South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings on Friday, Sept. 23. Ron Capps, director of the Veterans Writing Project (standing, center) chose the finalists from a pool of semi-final entries selected independently by a panel of four readers with backgrounds in military and writing.

James Teller was the winner of the contest.  

The 2016 Veterans Writing Prize received 32 submissions from around South Dakota in the first year of this South Dakota Humanities Council-sponsored program. Of the 32 submissions, writers represented 17 communities, several branches of the military, and service periods ranging from the 1940s to current active duty. 

Ron Capps, director of the Veterans Writing Project, chose the three finalists, who also read their pieces at the 2016 South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings on Sept. 23. A panel of four readers with backgrounds in military service, writing, and scholarship independently selected the pool of semi-finalists from the 32 submissions. Capps selected from that pool. 

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James Teller was selected as the winner. His submitted story is below.

The Reunion

by James R. Teller

I placed the call, having gotten the number from a message left on my phone. When he answered I recognized the voice of Craig Slocum immediately. He spoke with a New England accent having been raised in Rockland, Massachusetts. We hadn't spoken since 1969. He explained the mystery of how he had gotten my number, saying that he had checked the brigade web site where I had posted my contact information some months earlier.

As he spoke I thought of a night action we had conducted in June of 1968. I hadn't been in country long enough to wear off the green of being new, but I had been shot at. We had lost our Battalion Commander, two days earlier, to a midair collision with an Air Force FAC plane. We had recovered all of the bodies from the Commander's helicopter but for some reason the FAC plane had crashed some distance away and the pilot's body had not been recovered.

Everyone knew that the VC would be sitting on the wreckage and for some convenient reason another squad that was supposed to have point couldn't remember where the wreckage was, even though we all knew exactly where it lay. Slocum had just told me to move out and with me in the lead and Slocum walking behind me we had taken the point.

Going out was no problem. I knew where the wreckage was, having walked past it when we made our withdrawal. Now, all I had to do was descend Hill 108 and traverse the rice paddies to a river which fronted a village near the wreckage. The bridge spanning the river had been destroyed but the abutments still stood on each side. Five of us were sent across the river using a make shift system of planks. One of our machineguns was positioned on the near side abutment to cover us.

Once on the far side of the river the five of us spread out on the bank and were just about to have others move across the river when at least two and probably more grenades were thrown in on us. I was knocked to the ground and momentarily dazed from the concussion. When I came to I was terrified by the machine gun fire coming from the far abutment. It was not more than four feet above the ground just over my head. For an instant I thought that position had been overrun. My head cleared and I turned my attention in the direction the grenades had come from and did as I had been trained to do, clearing the area in front of me by firing my weapon and throwing grenades. It wasn't long before I heard first Slocum and then a chorus of men shouting for a cease fire. I stopped firing and listened.

Slocum was calling out the names of the four of us who had crossed the river with him. When a person heard his name called he would respond with: "yeah" or "here" and Slocum would ask if they were ok. He would then move on to the next man. But, when he got to me try as I would I could not make a sound. Finally, not hearing anything from me and fearing that I was in trouble he walked to where I lay on the southernmost side of the bank. He knelt beside me and asked if I was ok. I tried to respond but could not. Slocum asked me again if I was ok and I nodded that I was and then he looked around, seeing the empty magazines lying beside me and two grenade rings in the fingers of my left hand.

"You did ok," he said. "Next time you'll be able to do all of this and be able to talk."

I did go on to do all of that and more and still be able to talk, but I remember that first time I walked point at night and how terrified I was of our own machine gun and being knocked to the ground by CHICOM grenades. I still remember being confused and almost shooting back at our machine gun. I was disoriented for just a moment but it could have cost my life. Slocum had been my Squad Leader, Platoon Sargent and Platoon Leader and he was one of the reasons I am here today.

"Hey, Teller are you still there?" Slocum spoke loudly into the phone.

I was jerked back to present day and responded that I was still there. Craig wanted to know if I could attend a reunion being hosted by The Old Guard Association in Washington DC in early September. I immediately told him that I would attend knowing that I wouldn't miss a chance to meet with Craig and other old timers from Alpha Company. Then getting serious Craig asked me if I could afford to make the trip.

"If you can't afford it," Craig said. "We'll chip in and pay for your air fare and motel. We really want you out here."

That last remark meant a lot to me. It answered a lot of questions that had cropped up over the past forty years being out of contact. I reassured him that I could afford it and we said our goodbyes.

Getting ready for the trip with help of my wife Jeannie was no easy affair. It had to be planned out, clothes selected and tickets purchased. One new article of clothing I purchased was a Vietnam Veteran cap. It was black and in the front it said Vietnam Veteran around a CIB. I didn't think much about it at the time until reaching Chicago to change planes when a flight attendant looked at the cap and thanked me for my service. No one had ever thanked me for my service, this being before it was fashionable to do so. I sat in my seat with tears streaming down my cheeks. Going to one's first military reunion puts a person's nerves on edge; there is much anticipation and anxiety. I was proud to say that I was going to a reunion but I was anxious about meeting the guys again and I was afraid of The Wall.

Landing in Baltimore I was met by Craig Slocum and his wife Maddie, big hugs all around. We waited about an hour to meet Mike Telgenhof, an old timer in his own right and Slocum's best friend. Mike and I had been good friends while in Vietnam also. When he arrived we hugged and greeted each other as long lost brothers and then Slocum told me to go and get Mike's baggage.

"Forty years and I'm still an FNG?" I asked.

To which Slocum responded, "Damned right and you always will be."

We all laughed and then all of us went to get Mike's bag. Then we loaded up the rental car and drove to the Days Inn near the rear gate of Fort Meyers. Here we met Goose and Gayle Tatum. Goose was known to me but because he had spent his time with first platoon instead of second platoon like the rest of us I did not know him well.

That night before falling asleep I thought of the last night action Slocum and I were on together. It was near the end of Slocum's tour in Vietnam. He had been released of his duties and all he and a couple other old timers had to do was float. They could be anywhere they wanted to be in Alpha Company. They were in a word short. This time we were up in the mountains north and west of Da Nang by the Laotian border. Second platoon was being sent out on an ambush patrol and Slocum had walked over to me and asked who had point. I responded that I did. So, just like my first night action Slocum walked second man.

I was breaking a trail through tall elephant grass down the side of the main hill and off on a finger to where the elephant grass stopped and scrubby, bushy trees grew. It was my intention to locate the ambush inside the area covered with trees which were covered with a canopy. As I started to make entry into the trees Slocum grabbed me and I stopped and we settled to the ground. Whispering in my ear he told me to watch and pointed to shadows moving in the moonlight. Those shadows were NVA soldiers picking up their gear and moving out. If I had plunged ahead as I was going to do all hell would have broken loose. But, that didn't happen. Instead, our new Lieutenant Hamblin, Slocum and I laid cover fire while the rest of the platoon pulled back. What was unusual was that we were close within fifteen meters and we could see muzzle flashes from the enemy's rifles but we didn't hear any bullets whizzing past our heads. One other point of interest was that Slocum had told the Lieutenant not to throw any grenades because of the canopy covering the trees. Well, the new Lieutenant threw a grenade which got hung up in the canopy and a hot piece of shrapnel had caught Slocum on the cheek. It was a small piece of shrapnel but Slocum was furious. Slocum didn't like mistakes, especially in close quarters.

The ambush patrol had been compromised so we started making our way back to the company perimeter. I still had point only when the platoon withdrew the guys got excited and lost the trail and just went crashing out into the elephant grass. I found myself in a deep ravine covered with canopy and we stopped for a break because I was beat. Slocum asked me if I knew where I was and where the company was and I responded that I indeed did know. He then told me that I didn't and when Lieutenant Hamblin came up and asked us if we knew where we were we both responded that we didn't know. This was Slocum's punishment for throwing the grenade. The Lieutenant didn't know where we were and had to call the company and have them use their mortar to shoot illumination so he could see where the company was. It was a bad deal for the Lieutenant as everyone else knew if you wanted to go home all you had to do was walk up to the top of this big hill we were on.

Early the next morning we loaded onto a tour bus and headed for Gettysburg. It was a great time with much joshing, joking and picture opportunities. Maddie and Gayle are great friends and Craig, Mike, Goose and me acted like long lost brothers. There is a bond shared by men who have been in combat together. We enjoyed the tour but more than that we just enjoyed being together again. It was a great time. The tour guide made a special point to show us where The Old Guard had entered the fight at Gettysburg and being infantrymen we felt somehow connected with those Civil War soldiers.

The next day The Wall loomed in front of me. Craig, Mike and Goose gave me room but at the same time were aware of everything I was doing. Mike was very helpful in helping me find the names and locations of people I wanted to see that were on The Wall. Then we went out and found them. I was doing pretty good finding the name and silently saying goodbye. I was not aware of the others at all. Then on the last name, that of Matt Stewart I broke down and all three closed around me and held me in their arms as I wept uncontrollably. Matt, like me, had come to the unit as a replacement. He had begged me to carry the machine gun for my squad and he had become a close friend who had been killed shortly after I had gone home. He was a good kid from Corbin, Kentucky and I was saddened by his death. After the group hug I found a bench and sat down. It was during this time of reflection that I and Mike were interviewed by a college student doing a paper concerning the people visiting The Wall.

There were other things at my first reunion. A hurricane hit us pretty hard and the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier were relieved of duty because of the high winds and we were very proud of them when they refused to leave their posts. Maddie and Gayle got wasted on Long Island Teas. Jimmie Attkisson from third platoon showed up and Slocum called him a "rich bastard" and made him buy us lunch. He is a lawyer in DC and his pretty wife Sharyl is a national news correspondent. Curly, another member of third platoon came with his daughter and her friend. Maddie, Gayle, Mike and I went to a convenience store and bought supplies for the incoming storm. We visited the Korean War Memorial at night and it was eerie and very quiet. The statues of a rifle platoon depicted there seemed to move in the night. The next day I was the first replacement to sign Alpha Company's Vietnamese flag an honor bestowed upon only a few.

At the end I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. I was sad that our time together was coming to a close. We hugged each other, made our goodbyes and I boarded my plane a changed man. The ghosts had been confronted and the bonds of friendship and brotherhood had been renewed. It was a trip well worth making. Many questions were answered and others were put into perspective. I wouldn't have made the trip to The Wall any differently than the way I did. Having three combat buddies to hold and support me and share in my grief was exactly what I needed at the time. Reunions, while not for the faint of heart are beneficial and healing for those men lucky enough to have contact with their combat unit. Large or small reunions while often emotional are a way to lighten the load of a combat soldier and heal the wounds of war.