‘Brothers’ from Vietnam relish chance to reconnect
Twenty years ago they reconnected for the first time since the Vietnam War. Since then, the 57th Assault Helicopter Company has made their reunions a top priority every other year.
“Everybody talks about the Band of Brothers. When we see each other, we don’t shake hands, we hug,” said Joe Pagan, a mechanic or “witch doctor” for the helicopters during the war. He was tasked with “fixing anything that breaks.”
Pagan, a resident of Riverside, Calif., was chairman of a past reunion of the 57th in Houston. The group gathered again on Aug. 22-25, this time staying at the Clarion in Batavia.
They flew in from all over the country. Albion resident Charlie Nesbitt, a pilot with the 57th from 1968-1969, was chairman of the group’s 11th reunion, which was attended by 67 veterans.
They toured sites in Western New York, including Niagara Falls, the Lockport Locks, the Cobblestone Society Museum, downtown Albion, Leonard Oakes Estate Winery and the Village Inn. They also took a boat ride along the canal.
Mostly, they talked and reconnected.
“You spend the worst year of your life with these guys,” Pagan said. “You build a bond that’s no comparison.”
Pagan has been to all 11 reunions. When some members of the group wanted to have a reunion 20 years ago, they each picked a few names and tried to track down veterans through mail and phone calls. Now the group has its own web site, and that has helped veterans get back in touch with the 57th. The group also takes out ads in military magazines, informing veterans about the reunions.
Several veterans attended the reunion for the first time from Aug. 22-25. The attendees included generals, pilots, gunners, mechanics, crew chiefs, cooks and anyone else who served in the 57th, a group that flew special forces soldiers in and out of enemy territory.
“When I was in Vietnam, this unit was my family,” said Bob Tobey, a Massachusetts native who now runs a coconut farm in Jamaica. “We watched each other’s back.”
Tobey was a pilot in Vietnam. He said the 57th took people from all over the country, of varying backgrounds and talents, and developed a highly efficient and skilled team.
“We all worked together like clockwork,” Tobey said. “We were a group of people thrown together and it worked.”
Gary Beikirch was one of the special forces soldiers who was brought in and out of battle by the 57th. Beikirch is one of 79 living Medal of Honor winners. He addressed the 57th reunion on Saturday night.
Beikirch won his medal for his extreme bravery during the Seige of Dak Seang, a battle supported by aircrews from the 57th. On April 1, 1970 a massive force of North Vietnamese attacked a camp in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
Although suffering multiple wounds Beikirch continued to perform his duties and rescued numerous American and indigenous personnel. For his actions he was awarded the Medal of Honor on October 15, 1973.
Beikirch returned to Rochester and worked 33 years as a middle school counselor.
“I’ve had a lot of years of life because you had my back over and over again,” Beikirch told the 57th veterans.
He repeated a message he often shared with middle schoolers about the importance of having goals and a vision for the future. He told the veterans they still have a lot to give.
“There is much more for us to do as men who have fought,” he told the group.