A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

October 1999/November 1999

Perfect Strangers

"A Coincidence Is Nothing More Than A Spiritual Guide"

By Jim Belshaw

Sandy Miller had been coming to VVA conventions for ten years. She couldn't dream that she would meet someone like Bobby Sawyers, but still she'd go, holding the dream at arm's length but never giving up on the chance that she might come across someone who could answer the questions that had troubled her for thirty-three years.

At the August convention, when the reality of the dream seemed only a few feet away from her, she couldn't believe it was actually happening.

Her friend, Marsha Four, ran as a candidate at large for the national board. As Sandy worked the floor to gather petition signatures, she walked by a man in a wheelchair..

He asked Sandy where she was from.

"Outside of Philadelphia," Sandy replied..

"My wife is from Pottstown," Bobby said. "And so was one of the guys killed in Vietnam. He was struck by lightning. His name was Ronnie, but we called him Gus." Sandy Miller turned.

"I've been looking for you for thirty years," she said to Bobby Sawyers.

Ronnie "Gus" Neuman was drafted into the Army in 1965. He was a quiet kid. His life was his mother, his church, and his fiancé. Everyone in the family thought he and the Army probably wouldn't be a good fit.

"He wasn't an Army kind of guy," Sandy said.

She was then 11 years old and Gus's cousin, though the families were so close that the kids grew up more like brothers and sisters than cousins. Gus had always been like a big brother to Sandy.

Bobby Sawyers met Gus when they were stationed together in Hawaii. When they got to Vietnam, Gus was the driver of an armored personnel carrier and Bobby was the rear gunner.

Shortly after they arrived, the unit was establishing a perimeter and Gus was sent out to the wire on guard duty. A storm rolled in, so loud and violent, the men thought they'd come under enemy fire.

Lightning struck Gus in the head and the waist. A medic kept him alive for fifteen or twenty minutes, but he never had a chance.

When the Army came to tell his mother back home in Pennsylvania, she shooed the kids inside the house and tried to keep the awful truth from finding her.

"I remember seeing this green sedan," Sandy said. "We told her the Army was coming, and she told all the kids to get inside. She said, `If they can't tell me, it must not be so.' He told her that her son had been killed in action. It was very cold. It was hard for me as a child to understand what war was about, let alone death."

They gave Gus's mother a Purple Heart and two or three days later returned to take it back. They said he'd been killed by lightning, not enemy fire.

"No one could tell us where or how this took place," Sandy said. "Being young and close to him, I always wondered. I had to know. I just had to know."

It was the beginning of more than thirty years of asking. As she grew into adulthood, she would have many contacts in the veteran community. She was a Navy veteran herself, having served from 1975 to 1981. She now manages a program for homeless veterans at the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service Education Center.

She's been a VVA member for ten years, and at each convention she attended, she'd wonder if anybody in the room knew Gus and then dismiss the thought as quickly as it came. Gus had been in-country only weeks before he was killed. He wasn't there long enough for anyone to know him.

"I had to know, I just had to know," she said. "I had contact with so many Vietnam veterans, and I'd heard so many stories about the country. I had to know for myself, and no one could tell me."

Back in Vietnam in 1966, Bobby Sawyers took over as driver of the APC after Gus died, and he, too, soon would run into his own awful moment -- Bobby drove over a 500-pound mine. The explosion blew off his legs.

The Army sent him to a hospital in Valley Forge, Pa.

"I got to asking questions about where Pottstown was," he said. "I'd always bugged Gus about getting the Pottstown Mercury. Gus said some of the most beautiful women in the world came out of Pottstown, and I said,` yeah, I've heard that story before.' "

Bobby met one of those beautiful women from Pottstown and married her and took her home to Tennessee. She'd graduated from high school with Gus's brother. Bobby got to meet Gus's mother and Sandy's mother. But he didn't meet Sandy.

That wouldn't happen until 1999 at the National Convention.

"I guess you could call it a Godsend that we met at the convention," he said. "I guess it was just meant to be. A coincidence is nothing more than a spiritual guide, you know. It had to be. Why else would they have sent me to Pennsylvania instead of sending me to some other place?"

They talked for a long time at the convention -- she asking questions, Bobby recalling his time with Gus, passing on the details of the day Gus died, the when and where and how that Sandy sought for so long.

"It puts that part of it to rest," she said. "It's a great relief to me. What's really hard is my aunt (Gus's mother) has Alzheimer's now and she'll leave this world and never know the answers to those questions. Meeting Bobby was one in a million. I never expected it. I was fortunate because I got those questions answered. So many people go through their Vietnam experience never having their questions answered. I waited thirty-three years to get the answers, and I feel blessed to have finally found them."
 

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