‘It brought that day back.’ Three Vietnam veterans relive service on Honor Flight trip

Standing at the Vietnam Memorial on a sunny May day in Washington D.C., Thomas Day, Leo Heaney and Charlie Evans searched for the names of their fallen friends.

They were hard to find — more than 58,000 American soldiers died while serving in the Vietnam War between 1955 and 1975.

The three veterans also had a hard time remembering the names.

“For me, I forgot the names of the guys, though I see a lot of faces,” said Day, 84, sitting with his two friends at Heaney’s home in Puyallup on May 23.

The three had just returned from a weekend trip to Washington D.C. as part of the Puget Sound Honor Flight program, which flies veterans from Western Washington to war memorials meant to honor them.

The program started with World War II veterans and just recently started taking those who served in the Vietnam War.

Heaney, Evans and Day served in the same unit — Tiger Force of the First Battalion, 327th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division — during the Vietnam War. They’ve kept in touch ever since, bonded by their service together.

‘There’s nobody else I wanted with me’

When Evans heard about the Honor Flight program from a neighbor, he wanted to go — but on one condition.

“I told her, ‘I won’t go unless my two friends who served with me in Vietnam can go,’” said Evans, 74.

All three of them wrote that condition on their applications, too.

“We fought in war together,” Day said. “There’s nobody else I wanted with me at that time than my two friends I served with.”

Day from California, Evans from Florida, and Heaney from Pennsylvania enlisted in the military when they were teenagers.

“I think there’s a lot of naivety about it, too. When you’re 18, you don’t really think you’re going to die,” said Heaney, 71.

Day and Evans served in the Tiger Force together first in the 1960s. When Day was shot and injured during battle in 1966, Heaney, the youngest of the three, took his place in the Tiger Force.

The Tiger Force had a unique role, using guerrilla tactics and spending months in the jungle in Vietnam. While consisting of about 40 people at any one time, the Tiger Force operated in smaller groups of five to seven soldiers.

Heaney, Day and Evans were accepted to join the Honor Flight. On May 18, they boarded a plane with dozens of other veterans to fly to Washington D.C. They were joined and escorted by Rep. Kelly Chambers, R-Puyallup.

The veterans were given letters from children, thanking them for their service.

“In Vietnam, one of the things you looked forward to was a mail call, where you get your letters … I don’t know anyone who opened it up and started reading that did not get emotional, that did not get their voice choked up like I just did, and get tears in their eyes,” Evans said.

When they touched down in D.C., they were greeted by volunteers. Children on field trips lined up to shake their hands and even hug them.

“It was just very emotional,” Evans said.

When they stopped at the Vietnam War memorial, a guide helped them find the names of the soldiers who had died fighting alongside them.

“It’s excitement because you found them, and then all of a sudden it’s the realization of how many you lost, because you can see them right there,” Evans said. “You don’t remember all of their names until you see them in writing on the wall.

“It brought that day back.”

‘Nothing but luck’

On June 8, 1966 in the first Battle of Dak To, the Tiger Force was on a mission to find enemy headquarters.

“We did, and we paid for it,” Evans remembered.

Of 42 men, only seven were unscathed by the end of the day. One of those wounded was Day, who passed in and out of consciousness on a hillside for five hours until a medic was able to help him.

Day said he has a hard time talking about what happened unless he knows someone has gone through a similar experience.

“You come so close to dying so many times that I wont say that you get used to it, but your courage comes from trying to protect your people,” Evans said.

The three of them say they feel lucky to be alive.

“I’ve always felt lucky because you can do everything right and still lose,” Heaney said.

“We wore bush hats,” Evans said. “And how lucky can you be to have your hat shot off and the next morning look at it and have an entrance and exit hole? Luck. Nothing but luck. An inch difference, and I wouldn’t be here.”

Forgotten heroes

Upon return to the United States, some Vietnam veterans didn’t receive a warm welcome, especially from those who didn’t want war.

“They wanted peace,” Evans said. “They took their anger out on us.”

The Honor Flight trip made up for that, they said. They recommend other veterans sign up.

“Vietnam in particular, if they felt that the country had forgotten about them,” Heaney said.

Heaney wrote and published a book last July detailing his experience in the Tiger Force, interviewing the soldiers that served with him.

This summer, members of the Tiger Force plan to gather for a reunion in Puyallup. It’s a time to remember those they lost.

“We had some very brave people who didn’t make it,” Evans said.

Day and Heaney and came to Washington to work at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and currently live with their wives in Puyallup. Evans came to Washington for his wife, Kristin. They live together in Lake Tapps.