The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
September/October 2005
FEATURE
 
 

The Ballad of Speedy & Short
A Locator Reunion
 

BY MICHAEL KEATING

1st Cav., 2/7: Does anyone remember May 1969, LZ Jamie, the night of hell? I was a member of the team that recaptured the bunkers that the NVA had taken. Gary Owen. Welcome Home. Contact: Fred Sona, Jr., 895 Woodmere Dr., Cliffwood Beach, NJ 07735; 732-583-1949.

It was a little after midnight. Speedy and Short had just finished their radio watch and they sat together chatting quietly and smoking cigarettes. Above them draped the great swath of the Milky Way. Stars without number and beyond comprehension glittered silently in the cloudless sky.

The two young men had become close friends. Their energies, though different, complemented each other. They were in the same outfit: HHC, 2nd/7th Cav., 1st Cav. Division. They were both radio operators. Besides, Speedy was from New Jersey; Short, from New York. Seemed only natural that they’d hang out together.

It was the night of May 12, 1965. Speedy and Short were smoking, drinking beer, and admiring the night sky over LZ Jamie, when suddenly they heard the sound: thwomp, thwomp, thwomp. It was the hollow sound of mortars.

The friends turned in different directions to defend the perimeter. Thwomp, thwomp, thwomp over and over. More than two hundred rounds of rockets and mortars fell on LZ Jamie that night.

Then the human-wave attacks began. Abrupt, brilliant flares flashed a nightmare of NVA regulars relentlessly pushing through the swirling razor wire that encircled the encampment. Like supermen, they just kept coming. The artillery fired flechette rounds that shot off hundreds of tiny darts, seemingly without effect.

The NVA overran two bunkers and all night the American troops fought to retake them. A helicopter attempted to evacuate the wounded but was shot out of the sky—killing all aboard. Napalm was dropped almost directly in front of the troops. The combat was so close, it was almost hand to hand.

Then at sunrise, the NVA melted away. Speedy had been wounded. He would be awarded both a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for his actions that night. But that morning he wanted only one thing: to be on that helicopter to Quan Loi.

Soon that wish was granted. And Speedy lifted up and out of Short’s life.


You didn’t ask because you didn’t want to know. Or were afraid to know. “You didn’t ask because if you knew, you would have to deal with it,” explained Fred Sona. “You didn’t want to deal with it.”

So he buried his questions deep inside. In the succession of life’s cycles—wife, children, jobs—his identity as a veteran also got buried. He was the United Auto Workers Region 9 Representative in Linden, New Jersey. He took his job seriously. He didn’t call himself a veteran; he never talked about the war. He never sought out his brothers-in-arms.

A more tortured history for Gary Short but with a similar end: He returned to Brooklyn, along with his friend Danny, also a veteran of LZ Jamie. But Danny was shooting heroin. Then more heroin. It was all-too-clear what Danny was doing: killing himself. There came a time Gary couldn’t watch any more.

He left.

He finally settled in Reno, Nevada. Married. Changed his name. Raised kids. Became Gary Meneley.

But his guilt pursued him. The guilt he felt for abandoning Danny compounded his guilt for his perceived sins in Vietnam. “Some things I wasn’t proud of,” Meneley said. “Like calling fire on civilians.”

But all this paled compared to the burning shame of having survived when others died.

So he buried it.


For both men, as time passed and life’s tasks were completed, there arose a yearning to know, a need to both clarify and verify their Vietnam War experiences.

Then one morning, Sona was in the house he loved so much in Clifford Beach, New Jersey. The house sits on the edge of Raritan Bay. Looking out across the bay, he saw a huge plume of smoke rising from lower Manhattan. It was September 11, 2001.

For days the smoke poured over Raritan Bay. But what followed was the smell. And the smell took him back to Vietnam.


Sona’s Locator notice in The VVA Veteran sought veterans of LZ Jamie. He got a couple responses, but they were bogus.

The ad caught Gary Meneley’s attention, but he sure didn’t recognize the name “Fred Sona, Jr.” With a mixture of trepidation, hope, and curiosity, he called, introducing himself as “Short.”

“Short! You son of a bitch,” Sona exploded. “Where the hell have you been all these years? This is Speedy.”

As luck had it, Sona had a UAW conference scheduled in Reno. He spent four days with Meneley at his home.

“I was afraid, scared,” said Sona.

“It was bringing up a lot of old emotions,” agreed Meneley. “It brought up many buried things.”

Meneley’s wife, Laurel, both joined them and left them to themselves, cared for them and allowed them their space. Often that space was Meneley’s Jacuzzi, and time was spent “crying, laughing, and screaming,” according to Sona.

“It was time-tripping,” said Meneley. “All over the board. Sometimes we talked about Vietnam, then our kids and wives. Just all over the place. Yeah, and we talked about Danny.”

“It was the best thing ever for my PTSD,” said Sona.

They kept in touch by phone, and when VVA held its National Convention in Reno, Sona came as a delegate from New Jersey; Meneley, a delegate from Nevada. But instead of staying at the Convention hotel, the Silver Legacy, Sona stayed with Gary and Laurel Meneley at their home in Reno.

“Next year, Gary’s coming to New Jersey,” Sona said with pride.


The second night of the Convention, they drove out over the California border to Hallelujah Junction. They drove down a long, dark stretch of road, then pulled over to the side. Turning off the ignition and the lights, they stepped out of the truck.

As their eyes adjusted to the intense darkness, the vast dazzling desert sky emerged. The Milky Way, like a sluggish, glittering river, swelled in the blackness of the sky. An occasional satellite floated silently.

It was the prelude to the Perseid meteor shower. The air was light and fresh and clean, scented by sage. Shooting stars punctuated the sky; men’s laughter punctuated the desert silence.

Then a single meteor arced across the entire northern sky, momentarily leaving a long white tail.

“He’s closer than my own blood brother,” said Sona.

“You speak for me,” replied Meneley.

   

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