Monday, August 26, 2013

Exclusive: My Unforgettable Day With the Last American Troops to Leave Vietnam

Your author (center, in jeans) and the last men to leave Vietnam

I'll never forget the first time I visited The Wall, the poignant Washington DC memorial that pays tribute to the more than 58,000 American men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice during the Vietnam War. It was the summer of 1994. I was a correspondent with People magazine at the time and was in DC to meet with the legendary last American troops to leave Vietnam.

Earlier that year, I'd become the first journalist to identify, interview and bring together these brave Marines, who were on the last helicopter to evacuate Vietnam from the roof of the US Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975. The magazine brought six of them to San Diego, where I hosted a reunion for them. It was the first time most of them had seen each other since that night they left Saigon nearly 20 years before. They told me, among other things, that they waited hours for that final chopper. They all thought they'd been left behind. 

It was shocking to me that these men, who are a part of American history, had never been officially identified by the Department of Defense. After producers of the musical Miss Saigon read my story, they brought all these guys, and a few more that were unable to come to San Diego, and me to Washington DC to be the special guests at the Kennedy Center premiere of the touring musical, which recreates that historic helicopter flight. 

The day after we attended the play, we all met up at The Wall. Many of these guys had surprisingly not been there before, either. It was an emotional moment for all of us. There wasn't a dry eye among these tough Marines when they started swapping stories about some of their fallen comrades. 

At the Kennedy Center the night before, as these men watched the scene in the play that depicted that harrowing and now infamous escape from the embassy roof, I could sense that they felt they were finally getting the recognition they deserved.

"This play brought tears to my eyes," S.Sgt. David Norman told me. "It really brought it all back." In the photo above, from left to right, the eight Marines on that last chopper out who I was honored to meet while covering this story were Sgt. Maj. Terry Bennington, M. Sgt. Juan Valdez, S.Sgt. Mike Sullivan, Lt. Col. Jim Kean, Gunnery Sgt. Robert Schlager, S.Sgt. Norman, Cpl. Stephen Bauer, and Sgt. Stephen Schuller.

It's always been important to me to thank veterans for their service, especially Vietnam vets, who've suffered decades of neglect and mistreatment and are only beginning to get the respect they've earned. It's taken five decades for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to acknowledge the devastation caused by Agent Orange, the deadly herbicide developed by Monsanto and others to which so many of our troops were exposed. Many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals are still fighting for the care they deserve. 

The VA has only recently updated its list of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships that operated in or near Vietnam during the war 50 years ago.

As the blog points out, the list of Navy and Coast Guard ships can help Vietnam veterans find out if they qualify for presumption of Agent Orange exposure when seeking disability compensation for Agent Orange-related diseases. The medical conditions presumed to be associated with Agent Orange can be found at VA’s web site

Thankfully, many more good Americans will not let VA forget those who served, and died, in Vietnam. And The Wall continues to grow. 

In fact, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), whose mission is to preserve the memorial's legacy, promote healing and educate about the impact of the Vietnam War, has just announced that it has coordinated with local organizations and volunteers nationwide in a call for photographs and back stories of veterans listed on The Wall for display at its Educational Center.

Plans for the exhibitions at the Center include the display of pictures and stories of those who did in that war, some of the 400,000 items left at The Wall, and a celebration of service member values in all wars. There are still about 26,000 Vietnam veterans listed on The Wall who need corresponding photographs and stories.

The call for photos is tied to the Faces Never Forgotten campaign, encouraging friends and families of veterans and all Americans to ensure that the memories and stories of those inscribed on The Wall are never forgotten. VVMF hopes to give every soldier the honor of being fully remembered as a person and not just a name.

For info on the Education Center at The Wall or submitting a photo, visit or call 866-990-WALL.


  1. Hello Mr. Reno -

    My name is Kelley, I believe you know my father, MSGT Colin D. Broussard? He was Ambassador Martin's personal Security Guard during the Fall - and was on the second to the last chopper out of Saigon.

    I was only 14 at the time you had arranged this reunion and I remember that time very vividly, as it was the first time my Dad was being recognized for the part he took during Saigon's Historical Fall.

    I want to personally thank you from the bottom of my heart for the way you honored all of these amazing men, men who my Dad thought of as his Brothers, who America should have recognized as our Nation's Hero's.

    They were never shown the slightest bit of gratitude, and this reunion that you put on for them, honored them and what they did for this country beautifully.

    I'm sad to report that my Dad unfortunately passed away on Christmas Day back in 2005, due to a heart attack that he had in his sleep. He was only 55 years old, and his passing was very shocking for all of us who knew and loved him.

    The last year of his life was filled with extremely trying circumstances that I believe may have stemmed from repressed PTSD from his time in Vietnam. Out of nowhere, he started having horrific hallucinations, slowly but surely they became more and more frequent, as well as more and more terrifying. He became so consumed with these hallucinations that he often would go days on end without eating and he suffered massive sleep deprivation on top of it. By the time he passed away, he had become so malnourished that he was underweight to the point of being almost entirely unrecognizable.

    Like so many other Vietnam Vets, my Dad suffered so much devastation that stemmed from and far past the effects of the Vietnam War, and the fact that they were so grossly forgotten is absolutely unacceptable. I really like the way Asknod said above, "Veterans are in a different Hall of Fame and always will be." I would like to add that, THAT GOES DOUBLE FOR ALL OF OUR Vietnam Veterans - It is them who are Gods Elite Warriors, they suffered through things most Americans couldn't possibly imagine, and they paid a price that should command a special day that is reserved annually - to appreciate, honor and memorialize them and only them.

    My Father was a good man, and one hell of a Marine, there hasn't been a day in the 8 years since he has passed, where I don't think about how much I wish that I got to have more time with him. I wear his Dog Tag on a chain that hangs close to my heart as a reminder that he is always with me and it's a great comfort when times get hard.

    Mr. Reno - thank you again, so very much, I know that my Father felt so honored and appreciated by being involved with this incredibly powerful and extremely thoughtful reunion that you had held back in '94 - It was because of you that these amazing Heroes were FINALLY treated RIGHT!! You are a class act, and one hell of a good guy. Many Blessings to you and yours...


    1. Kelley, thanks so much for the kind words. It was an honor meeting all of these guys. I love that you wear his dog tag. Please keep in touch with me. All the best to you!

  2. There are still about 26,000 Vietnam veterans listed on who need corresponding photographs and stories.

    1. Thanks for sharing this information, kipli.