Linked by grief, we stay in touch

Billy Vachon

Billy Vachon

Here’s one of the rewards of pursuing a story to ensure a veteran is remembered: new friends. And the holidays have a way of reconnecting you with them.

At Christmas my wife, Mary, and I got a card from Louise Vachon (pronounced VASH-ahn) in Portland, Maine, and last week I called her. Louise and I had been out of touch for maybe half a year. We hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

Her son, Billy Vachon, died with my cousin Nicky Venditti in the Vietnam War.

We got to know Louise and her family after I began looking into Nicky’s death. Nicky and Billy were friends. They had gone through all of their Army training together – boot camp and both schools for helicopter pilots — and went to Vietnam together in the summer of 1969.

During their first week on the Americal Division base at Chu Lai, they were sitting together at an orientation lecture on grenade safety when the instructor tossed what was supposed to be an inert grenade. For reasons that remain a mystery, it was live. It exploded under the table where Nicky and Billy sat, gravely wounding them and instantly killing another soldier. Five days later, Nicky died in the 312th/91st Evacuation Hospital at Chu Lai. Billy was in the same intensive care unit and followed him two days later.

Billy was 21 and left behind a wife and 3-year-old daughter.

“He was a good pilot and a natural-born leader,” said one warrant officer who trained with him. “He took to the military real good, and he made it known he was interested in the Army as a career. His mannerisms, attitude, self-confidence, they all said: Stick with me, I know what’s going on.”

Mary and I visited the Vachon family in 1998 and again a year-and-a-half later, staying in Billy’s old room. I was glad I could give them specifics about his death, details they had never known because they had never gotten a full explanation from the Army.

We felt warmed by the Vachons’ embrace.

Louise’s husband, a World War II combat veteran, died months after our first trip to Portland. Louise, a gracious and loving woman, is now in her mid 80s. On the phone last week, she filled me in on the Vachons’ comings and goings.

I promised her that Mary and I will be back in Portland someday to deliver Quiet Man Rising: A Soldier’s Life and Death in Vietnam after it’s published. That’s my book about Nicky.

It is also Billy’s story.

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