Sunday, July 26, 2009

Vietnam vets reunite after almost 40 years

July 26, 2009
By Joseph Cress, Sentinel Reporter

Olive drab fatigues are supposed to be camouflage, but there was no way for Tom Stubits to blend into the background.

An Army lieutenant on his first deployment, he stood out as the new guy in a unit of seasoned veterans dressed in dirty uniforms faded light green by the sun.It was September 1970 and a convoy had just dropped off Stubits at fire base Ben Het near the border where Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia come together.

Not far away, the Ho Chi Minh trail wound through the jungles of the central highlands as the major supply line for enemy forces.“It was obvious I was a shave tail,” recalled Stubits, 64, of Boiling Springs. “I even had a briefcase with all my papers.”“Shave tail” is military slang for a relatively new and untested lieutenant. It was a true enough description for Stubits.

A Manhattan native, he joined the Army in 1968 and was commissioned the following year after attending officer candidate school.
He served as a company commander at Fort Dix, N.J. before being deployed a year later to combat duty as forward observer for a heavy artillery battery.

Looking around the fire base, Stubits didn’t know what to do at first. Then he noticed a sergeant was coming his way.“When he looked at me, I could almost read his mind ‘I’m going to have to train this guy,’” Stubits said.

Indeed, Sergeant Millard Mack Jr. felt sorry for the new arrival. “Sitting on the sandbags, Tom looked a little lost and down,” recalled Mack 81, of Willingboro, N.J. “I introduced myself to him.”Stubits remembers Mack identifying himself as “chief of smoke” and welcoming Stubits to the battery.

In his capacity of chief, Mack was in charge of all the gun sections and tasked with making sure every soldier did his job. That included a young lieutenant.

‘My project’“I made Tom my project,” Mack said. “He had a great personality. He absorbed things real quick and was wonderful to work with.”By 1970, Mack had a lot of experience training young soldiers.

He was drafted in the Army in 1951 and would end up serving 23 years including two combat tours in Vietnam and stints in Korea and Germany. He did not fight in the Korean War.“Mack was my mentor...the meat and potatoes of the operation,” Stubits recalled. “He took me under his wing and taught me everything I needed to know to be an artilleryman.”

A friendship soon developed but, four months later, Stubits and Mack were reassigned to different units elsewhere in Vietnam. They would see each other only one more time, but it was hardly enough to chat.

For years afterwards, the friends corresponded until they completely lost track of each other. Then five years ago, Mack was looking through memorabilia as he prepared to attend a reunion of one of his old units from Vietnam.

The retired sergeant first class soon came across Stubits’ name and serial number written on an address cut from an envelop. He had a friend run an Internet search which yielded the name and phone number of a Tom Stubits living in Boiling Springs. Mack phoned Stubits completely out of the blue.

“He said ‘Hi, it’s Sergeant Mack,’” Stubits recalled. “It did not register right away. Then I realized who he was and I was bowled over. We’ve been trying to get together since then.”The men exchanged emails as they tried to coordinate their schedules.

The reunion was delayed by medical problems faced by their wives. Stubits and Mack were finally able to see each other this weekend.

Their plans included a Sunday morning chapel service at Carlisle Barracks and a trip Saturday to the Army Heritage Trail in Middlesex Township to tour a replica of a Vietnam fire base.

Three-day pass

The fondest memory Mack has of Stubits involves another kind of reunion. One day while at Ben Het, Stubits learned his wife, an Army nurse, had been transferred from Fort Dix to a rear support base behind the lines.

Stubits wanted a three-day pass to visit his wife, but the major in charge denied his request. Distraught, Stubits was feeling down until Mack intervened and contacted a sergeant major friend of his. Mack played up the request as being critical to unit morale.Within five minutes, the sergeant major spoke with the colonel who overruled the major and granted the three-day pass.

“He took off flying and went back to his wife,” Mack recalled. “Tom was eternally grateful. Evidently, they conceived their daughter during those three days.”Stubits made a career out of the military eventually graduating from the Army War College in Carlisle in 1989.

He went on to be an instructor in military strategy until 1991 when he retired and now works as an advisor in the office of elementary and secondary education with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.As for Mack, he retired from the military in 1973 and worked a number of jobs including a stint with the McGuire Air Base post exchange.

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