How to know a slain soldier you never knew

A man is writing a book about a relative he didn’t know who was killed in Vietnam, according to a newspaper story last week.

Me? Well yeah, that fits what I’m doing, but this is about someone else – a 23-year-old who’s pursuing a master’s degree in history. The student, Joe Gilch from Gloucester Township, N.J., is writing about an uncle with the help of a Rutgers University history prof.

Joe’s uncle, Jimmy Gilch, was killed in Vietnam when he was 20 years old, the same age as my cousin Nicky Venditti when he died in the war. The similarity ends there. Jimmy was an infantryman, while Nicky was a helicopter pilot. Jimmy was outside Cu Chi, while Nicky was at Chu Lai. Jimmy died in 1966 when his personnel carrier was bombed; Nicky died in 1969, days after arriving in Vietnam, in what the Army said was a training accident involving a grenade.

Joe got interested in his uncle as a child, when his grandmother read him letters that Jimmy had sent to friends and relatives – and he had written a lot of them, more than 80. I got interested in writing about Nicky when I learned in 1994 that the records show he wasn’t killed by the enemy. I’d always thought he’d died as a result of rocket attack, a story that went around at the time.

At Rutgers, Joe teamed up with professor Michael Adas, who’s 69 and has written about war. He provides the historical context while Joe writes about his uncle. It’s very much a Vietnam War story – Jimmy had been in Vietnam five months when he was killed — while my story about Nicky is less so, because Nicky’s tour lasted a mere 12 days.

Still, Joe and I face a common challenge. He told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “How am I going to write a story about a man that I never knew?”

The answer is: You get to know him.

I was 15 when Nicky died, and all I remember about him is that he said “hi” to me once. Over the years, I’ve been reading his letters, studying pictures of him, walking around his hometown of Malvern, Pa., following his short path in Vietnam, collecting documents and talking with everyone I can find who knew him, both at home and in the Army. My notes and transcribed interviews fill a filing cabinet.

So, Joe, you do the reporting and you’ll get to know your uncle as I’ve gotten to know Nicky.







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