In the years following the initial deployment of major U.S. units to Vietnam in 1965, the formation of many troop units was random. This wasn’t the Band of Brothers. You didn’t ordinarily serve with men you had trained with. Instead, you were dropped into units filled with strangers. Some were “newbies” who had arrived a week before, and others were “short-timers” who would rotate out in a few days at the end of their one-year tours. That was the way it was in the 1st Infantry Division in 1967.
Much of the Big Red One was scattered in and around Lai Khe along Route 13 northwest of Saigon. The division faced frequent moderate to heavy Viet Cong attacks. Gary Obrist, a skinny 21-year-old from Gresham, Oregon, was a radio telephone operator in C Company, 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment. He had arrived in-country in August 1967 and was unceremoniously promoted in early December from a grunt carrying an M16 to an RTO when his squad’s radio operator caught a round. Gary’s squad leader had pointed to the radio: “Put that on. You’re my new RTO.”
Although Gary knew nothing about radios, he could learn anything, he kept his cool in combat and he could keep up with the lieutenant on patrols. That was qualification enough. A few weeks after Gary picked up the radio, he was promoted to corporal. He hadn’t been in Vietnam for very long, but if you could do the job, you got the rank.
Gary had arrived weighing 135 pounds. Four months later, at 128 pounds, he could carry a 100-pound load—an M16, eight clips of ammo, four flares, a PRC-25 radio in its backpack carrier, rations, two canteens, an entrenching tool and a knife—for 12 miles without stopping. Stopping to rest could be bad for your health: The more time you spent in the field, the more time the enemy had to shoot at you.
Gary was serious about Vietnam and about what he did. He didn’t screw around because he didn’t want to go home to his wife, Kathy, in a box. People who got drunk or stoned were likely to get killed—and they often took others with them.
Besides acquiring the survival skills to keep from becoming a statistic, Gary had learned not to get too close to anyone. It hurt too much when someone you knew too well was killed in action. More often, if you made a friend, he would get rotated home. Either way, it wasn’t worth the pain. Gary was friendly with everyone in his squad, but he wasn’t close to anyone.
Nevertheless, one man stood out in his mind. Tom “Doc” Cameron, a draftee. Tom wouldn’t carry a gun, so Uncle Sam made him a medic. In the fiercest firefight, while Gary was trying to disappear into the dirt, Tom would scurry to the side of a wounded man. After a quick patch, he would move on to the next. “Damn, he’s brave,” Gary wrote his wife. “And he won’t even carry a gun.”
Why does someone become a conscientious objector? Doc had played out every scenario in his mind and in letters home. He tossed around his thoughts with Gary. “Could I shoot to save myself? To save the man next to me?” Blame it on his two years in Bible college education or on his parents. Tom firmly believed that every man was special in God’s eyes. He just didn’t think he had it in him to kill someone, even to save a wounded GI. Shortly after he was placed in an infantry unit, he wrote home: “The Army could care less about my conscientious objector status. We have one objective, kill VC. But generally the only thing anyone wants to do
is go home.”
Tom tried not to go to Vietnam. In early 1967 the Army wasn’t drafting fathers, so he and his fiancée, Nancy, had moved up their wedding date in hopes of becoming parents. No such luck, he told Gary. A month after the wedding, he received the dreaded letter from Uncle Sam that began “Greetings!” Because Tom didn’t think he could shoot anyone, that left two options: running away to Canada or taking his chances as a conscientious objector. He couldn’t explain it to his folks, but Canada was never really an option. A year out of Bible college he, along with other objectors, was a trained medic on his way to Vietnam.
Uniform or no uniform, Tom Cameron was a committed Christian. He wrote home about his faith: “Whatever God does is fine with me, but I sure hope he lets me live through Vietnam long enough to make some dent, somewhere, in somebody (spiritually).” He felt out of place in the Army. “They all swear, four-letter adjectives are the major part of their language…and now those words are part of my vocabulary,” he wrote. “I don’t use them, but they are there anyway.” The daily ration was one can of pop and one cold beer. Doc didn’t drink alcohol, so he always took two cans of pop.
The Army issued Doc a pistol, and he wore it for a while, but never fired it in battle. Soon after he got the weapon, the squad spent a couple of nights with an artillery group and someone swiped it, according to one of his letters home. When Doc reported the theft, he was threatened with disciplinary action for losing his weapon. The punishment could include a rank reduction by as much as three grades, a pay cut amounting to one-half of his base pay for two months and 45 days of extra duty. Instead, Doc was “invited” to pay $57—the cost to replace the gun. He agreed to pay for a pistol that he hadn’t signed for and hadn’t wanted in the first place. Fortunately, the Army lost the paperwork.
Medics usually hung around with medics, but often didn’t have a hooch of their own. They slept anywhere they could, based on availability. When Gary’s hooch mate rotated home, Doc and Gary began sharing a hooch in the early fall of 1967, and by November they were friends. Gary often talked about his pregnant wife, Kathy, his sweetheart since junior high school. Gary wrote Kathy telling her about the medic who had moved into his hooch. Gary didn’t make friends easily, so Doc stood out to Kathy. Doc even wrote Kathy several times to say that he was looking after Gary and that he wouldn’t let him make stupid mistakes.
Doc had a natural flair for drawing and decorated his letters home with cartoons of GIs, palm trees and coconuts. He sent drawings of .30-caliber machine guns, explained fields of fire and sketched out the proper way to make a night defensive position. He was very frank about how hairy it got sometimes and about a few guys who bought it. It was probably more than his parents and his young wife needed to know. He prayed a lot, for his wife, for Gary, for himself and for an end to the war.
Doc had a funny reaction to Vietnam, partially motivated by his faith. He wrote home, “I’ve an unfair advantage with all the prayer you guys minister to me.” He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about getting killed. “I’ve been laughing all day,” he wrote, “clowning around, had a great patrol and am now in quite an elated mood. I have this stupid ability to adapt, ya know, and as a result I really have a lot of good times. We look forward to patrols, we had a fun one this morning. We looked like a patrol on the way out, a safari on the way in. Four bunches of bananas and all the grapefruit we could carry.” He wrote home that FTA stands for “Fun, Travel, Adventure,” which was better than explaining its real, more profane meaning: F−−− the Army.
When Gary or Doc received a letter, the other got to read it. And when a coffee can full of cookies arrived, they shared the treats. In photos Kathy sent when she was pregnant, Gary and Doc followed her progress as she got bigger with Gary’s unborn son.
It helped Gary to know that Doc was around. “I knew that if I ever got hit, Tom would come running. No matter what, he’d be there for me. It didn’t make me braver but it allowed me to focus. He was sort of like an insurance policy.” They salvaged a periscope from an armored vehicle and mounted it in their hooch so that they could look around during mortar attacks.
Sometime after May 1968, Gary spent three days of leave in Vung Tau, a port city about 80 miles south of Saigon where troops went to relax. When he returned to Lai Khe, Tom’s gear was gone, and so was Tom. Gary sought out another grunt.
“What happened to Doc?”
“He caught a round in the head. He didn’t make it.”
And that was that. One day Doc was there; the next day he was gone. Dwelling on someone who didn’t make it was a distraction that you couldn’t afford. In Vietnam, the answer was to keep your head down, focus on what you were doing and count the days until your tour was up. Mourning could get you killed.
In August 1968, Gary completed his tour with barely a scratch and rotated home to his wife and 5-month-old son in Oregon. Like many vets, he didn’t talk much about combat or about Tom. It was just too raw. But Gary remembered one thing in particular: He had never told Tom what he thought of him, how brave he was.
In November 1982 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The memorial was a shiny granite wall engraved with the names of American troops who died in the war: 57,939 names at the time of the dedication, arranged in chronological order according to the date of casualty. People who paid their respects at the memorial frequently made rubbings of the names, and the Wall became a place of healing and a source of closure.
In 2002 the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a three-fifths-scale replica of the Wall, arrived in Gresham, just a few miles from where Gary and Kathy lived. Gary had been busy running an excavation and demolition business, and raising two children with Kathy. He told Kathy that they had to go see replica. If he could do nothing else, at least he could touch the letters of Tom Cameron’s name. Maybe they could make a rubbing as a remembrance. Gary began to talk more about Vietnam. He had to find a way to mark Doc’s sacrifice.
But when they got to the traveling Wall, Tom’s name wasn’t on it. Maybe his middle name was Thomas, and his first name was something else. Nope. Was their spelling of Tom’s last name wrong? No, they had it right. He just wasn’t there. But how could this be? Doc had died in Vietnam, and Gary knew the date. He had written home after Doc disappeared and had confirmed the dates on his letters.
They discussed the possibilities. Perhaps Tom’s name had been overlooked. Perhaps Doc had only been wounded and died at home. Did you have to die in Vietnam to have your name on the Wall? Or worse yet, maybe he was lying in a nursing home someplace, forgotten.
Kathy took on her husband’s search. If Tom was buried in the States, she would find him. Together she and Gary would travel to his grave site. By then, Gary, too, was a Christian. He figured Tom would like that—Gary praying at his grave. They would find Doc’s parents and his wife and tell them what a brave man he had been, and what a good friend. If Doc was alive, well, they would find out what he needed. If they had to drive across the country, it would be worth it.
Kathy began to write to everyone she could think of: her congressmen, the U.S. Army, the Society of the 1st Infantry Division. Every letter came back with no news of Doc. Kathy didn’t give up. She continued her search through the first decade of the new millennium. When the traveling Wall passed through town every few years, it reminded them both of their unfinished business. They made the trek to the real Wall in Washington, but Tom’s name wasn’t there either.
In 2009 Kathy called her brother, Bill, and asked him to help her find out where Tom was buried and whether any of his family members were still alive. For Bill, the problem was simple. Although some names had been added to the Wall, either because of an initial oversight or because of a reclassification of a death, he thought that if Tom Cameron wasn’t on the Wall by 2010, he hadn’t died in Southeast Asia. Maybe he was alive, maybe he was dead, but he hadn’t died in Vietnam.
Bill spent four hours surfing the internet. He tried the names Tom, Thomas and Tommy. He changed the spelling of Tom’s last name. He tried Cameran, Cameroon and everything else he could think of, without luck. He checked out the 1st Infantry Division websites. It wasn’t an easy search because Gary didn’t remember the names of anyone in Tom’s family or even where he was from.
Bill finally set the search aside, but he flagged his calendar to remind him to look for Tom Cameron, a conscientious objector medic who had served in Vietnam with the 1st Infantry Division in 1967-68. Once a year, on New Year’s Day, Bill’s computer would remind him to spend an hour looking for Tom.
On New Year’s Day 2012, Bill called Kathy.
“Happy New Year. I found him! I found Tom Cameron! He’s alive.”
Kathy burst into tears.
Bill had stumbled across an internet article about Vietnam veteran Tom Cameron who had participated in a motorcycle rally called The Run for the Wall. Each May, biker vets gathered in Rancho Cucamonga, California, for a 3,000-mile ride to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, timed so that they would arrive during the Rolling Thunder event in Washington on Memorial Day. Tom had even designed the patch for the back of some of the riders’ jackets. It read, “Home of the Free, Because of the Brave.”
Before he passed the information on to Gary, Bill wanted to make sure that he had found the right Tom Cameron. Bill picked up the phone, and within a few minutes he had this Tom on the line. Yes, he had served in Vietnam in 1967-68 in the 1st Infantry Division. Yes, he had been a conscientious objector and a medic. But he had never been hit in the head.
In the spring of 1968, Doc had been reassigned. Instead of humping through the jungle, he would spend the rest of his time in a large field hospital. Bill asked him whether he remembered a guy named Gary Obrist. He really didn’t remember.
Tom’s memories of Vietnam were fuzzy, but he said he would dig out his photo albums and see whether he could find someone named Gary. He called Bill back a few hours later. His wife had kept all of his letters. Gary featured prominently in letters home for the several months that they lived together.
Later, Tom told Gary that he was struck by how dumb he had been to be so open about combat. “I probably made my wife and my mom watch the driveway for the black government car every day! So weird to see this from my more mature years! On the other hand, it sure made them pray. Maybe that’s why I made it.”
Gary and Tom spoke on the phone several times and tried to puzzle out what had happened. Perhaps another medic had been hit. After all, every medic was called Doc. Maybe Gary had just misunderstood. Their memories were a little hazy; Vietnam was a long time ago. Gary and Kathy made plans to visit San Diego, where the vets could renew their friendship while the two wives began one. Several visits to each other’s homes have followed.
In their first call, Gary finally delivered the message to Tom that had been on his mind for more than 40 years. “Man, I can’t believe how brave you were. Bravest man in the squad.” Tom replied, “I just had a job to do, and the guys were depending on me.”
William Leslie is a writer and a consultant specializing in family-owned businesses. He lives in Sandy, Oregon. He is Kathy Obrist’s brother.
First published in Vietnam Magazine’s December 2016 issue.