Read Jeff’s letters home from Army Language School (ALS), noticed a name I’d missed before – Keith Willis. Jeff wrote that he’d turned up in Monterey, they’d last seen each other several years back at a military prep, the Albany Academy (AA). Both guys found themselves studying Vietnamese. Like Jeff, Keith hadn’t chosen Vietnamese, the coming war chose it for him. It was ’62; JFK was pouring ‘advisers’ into South Vietnam, and ASA, the Army Security Agency, was stockpiling linguists, lingys in the parlance.
Keith was an easy find. I’d been ahead of him at AA, his address was in the alum network. He’d retired, lived downstate, was involved with our old school’s archives, and periodically came to the area. We met at a diner. By the end of the meal I felt like a lone miner who’d just struck gold. Keith had known Jeff at nearly every step of his last decade, the only one of many friends who did.
Over time, Keith filled me in on Jeff at ALS where the two of them owned a motorcycle together; on life in the Philippines where they shared the same barracks, did identical classified work; in Saigon where they were both sent on short notice in early ‘64 following General Khanh’s coup; then in Chicago where Keith had a corporate job when Jeff arrived after graduating Indiana University (IU); and finally, Keith was in touch as Jeff lay dying in a Florida VA hospital. Many of Jeff’s Vietnam GI buddies I later tracked down I had learned of from Keith.
How’d we find Dave Reinhardt, a name we’d never even heard? Jeff told me in the ‘60s of a special mission he was on with the Marines. Karen set out to find the long range reconnaissance unit for verification. It never turned up, but Dave did. He’d filed a PTSD claim and was looking for fellow Marines to verify his duties at Phu Bai with “spook types.” Karen got in touch, we’ve talked off and on with Dave, a North Dakota rancher, since.
Karen never gave up, finally tried a wild card. Let’s assume Miki for reasons unknown still uses ‘Lang’ as surname. Up popped a web site talking about the premier professional international paintball player, Ollie Lang, with excerpts from an interview with his mother, Miki Lang. An Internet portal swung open, Karen went through, found Michaela Lang, former international humanitarian aid worker who’d served abroad for 16 years in Africa and India. Having returned to the States in ’88, Miki now lives just across the bay from San Francisco. Listening to her stories of Indiana days completed the picture Karen had begun – Jeff as major campus activist articulating his opposition to the war, and honing his political skills for what lay ahead – Chicago and the creation of Vietnam GI.
I followed up, went down to New York, interviewed Tom at his place on the West Side. First thing he said – saw himself following in Jeff’s footsteps, carrying on the antiwar fight, with the newsletter as successor to VGI. Like Keith Willis, Tom had kept files which he shared. Came away understanding how VGI was produced, how the Chicago group surreptitiously shipped the paper in bulk to Tom, how in turn Tom and his team smuggled copies into Vietnam.
These were just some of the successes we scored in searching for Jeff, but we also came up short on a few memorable occasions, as the reader will soon see.