Two soldiers: Jesse Reed and my cousin Nicky

When Jesse Reed joined the Army in 2008, he told his worried mother, “This is what I was meant to do. Don’t worry, Mom, I’ve finally found my place in life.”

He was like so many others who have signed up for military service, particularly in wartime. They have the pride of serving their country, of having made the grade after rigorous training. They have a sense of purpose and accomplishment. They believe in their work.

My cousin Nicky Venditti felt that way when he became a hotshot Army helicopter pilot during the height of an Asian war four decades ago. What’s more, he looked forward to a future as a commercial pilot once he left the Army. And he had a girl back home in Malvern, Pennsylvania, waiting to marry him.

All he had to do was survive one year in Vietnam.  

Sacrifices small and large come with any job in the armed forces. For those in Iraq and Afghanistan, danger is always close by – in Afghanistan, where we now have more troops than in Iraq, nearly 8,000 Americans have been killed or wounded since 2001. (You can see the numbers on the Pentagon’s daily update at http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf. )

Among the 865 combat deaths in and around Afghanistan as of July 16 was Specialist Jesse Reed of Orefield, Pennsylvania. He and three other members of his unit – the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat Airborne), 20th Engineer Brigade (Combat) — were killed July 14 in Zabul province by a roadside bomb. Jesse was 26 years old and left behind a pregnant wife and a 10-month-old son.

He had been with his buddy, Specialist Adam Keys, a fellow graduate of Whitehall High School. Adam was seriously hurt in the bombing. Assuming he knows his friend is gone, his pain must be a thousand times worse. (For Morning Call reporter Matt Assad’s moving story on Jesse, go to http://www.mcall.com/news/breaking/mc-afghanistan-whitehall-soldier-kill20100715,0,5000356.story.

As always when a young life is cut short, the questions turn from why to what if. What if Jesse had survived his tour in Central Asia and come home, with a family and the rest of his life ahead of him? What would his contributions have been if his future had not been denied? How many ways will he be missed?

From what I’ve read about Jesse, he left a wonderful mark on friends and family that time won’t erase. They will grieve and miss him sorely, but at least for a while, he was with them, and they will remember him for that.

I know the feeling.

My cousin Nicky did not survive his one-year tour in Vietnam. He didn’t come home to his fiancée and a job flying helicopters for a living.  Rather, he was dead in only 11 days. His story is the subject of my book, Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam. (www.davidvenditta.com)

Nicky was 20 years old when he died at the Americal Division base at Chu Lai on July 15, 1969. As with Jesse, an explosion shattered the promise of his life.

I still wonder, after all these years: If Nicky had made it home, how would he be doing today? He was a playful rascal, with lots of energy and a good heart. How many more people would have come to know and like him?

What have my family and his friends lost out on, because he’s not around?

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