Coming full circle on a soldier’s death in Vietnam

July 15 was the 43rd anniversary of my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam.

It’s not a ring-dinger of an anniversary, not like the 25th or 50th, but I was aware it was approaching and woke up Sunday with Nicky on my mind.

I don’t know exactly why, but it might be because I’m nearing the end of a long project to tell Nicky’s story. My rewrite of what I hope will be a book is down to the last few chapters. If all goes as planned, this will be the year I finish the work – 18 years after I got started.

Nicky Venditti was five years older than I, one of many cousins, and I hardly knew him. I have images of only two occasions when we connected – once, when I was about 12 years old at a family picnic where he said hi and smiled at me, and another picnic a couple of years later when I saw him hugging his girlfriend and laughing on the eve of his departure for boot camp.

I was 15 when he was buried near his hometown of Malvern, Pa., and clueless about how he died just eleven days after arriving in Vietnam that summer of 1969. I’d always thought he was mortally wounded in a rocket attack, a story that went around.

It wasn’t the truth, far from it. In 1994 I learned that he was in a classroom during orientation for new arrivals when an Army instructor accidentally set off a grenade. In the last five days of Nicky’s life, surgeons cut off his shredded left leg below the knee. He died in an evacuation hospital at Chu Lai, home of the Americal Division.

The 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot never got a chance to fly in Vietnam. Two other soldiers also died from the grenade – Nicky’s friend and fellow pilot Billy Vachon from Portland, Maine, and Tim Williams of Rossford, Ohio, an equipment repairman.

In my search to get to know Nicky and understand what happened July 10, 1969, at an orientation building on a landing zone called Bayonet, I went to Vietnam to follow his path and traveled to Georgia, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Maine and California for interviews.

I finished writing in 2004, but it was nowhere good enough to get published. I had thrown in the kitchen sink, burdened the narrative with far too much detail, failed to see the arc of the story. I had to start over.

Now I almost have it.

Nicky will soon live again. That’s why this anniversary is notable.

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One response to “Coming full circle on a soldier’s death in Vietnam

  1. Nicky didn’t know it but he was lucky to have you for a cousin. Your quest to learn his story and your work to tell his story says that his life was important and he was too. I salute you for that!


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