2nd Lt. Charles Payne
561st Engineer Company, 84th Eng. Battalion, 130th Eng. Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command
CHARLESTON, S.C. — This year, I was afforded the opportunity to attend the 84th Engineer Battalion’s Vietnam Veterans Club Reunion, held at the Holiday Inn-Riverview overlooking the beautiful Ashley River in Charleston, S.C., June 21-24.
Jerry Zenoni, the coordinator for this year’s event, gave me a wonderful “Never Daunted” welcome upon my arrival and quickly introduced me to the retired Soldiers of the 84th Eng. Bn., 130th Eng. Brigade, 8th Theater Sustainment Command.
Although I only have a year under my belt as a second lieutenant, the men were extremely accommodating and excited to share their experiences. Assembled in front of me were retired Maj. Ben McWilliams, a former Company B commander, and many retired warrant officers and heavy equipment operators, most of whom had served on multiple deployments during the Vietnam War.
The stories that followed were nothing short of incredible. Before I could even grab my pen, Richard Sharp, a former “Spec-5” (Specialist Fifth Class, or E5) and heavy equipment operator, began filling me in on Operation Duke, an operation that was one of several construction missions to improve airfields throughout Vietnam.
From roadways and ammunition depots, to bridges and hospitals, the Soldiers of the 84th Eng. Bn. never shirked their responsibility to provide exceptional construction support throughout their time in Vietnam. Considering the diversity of mission sets accomplished by these men in the face of limited resources and personnel constraints, I could not help but question whether Americans truly understand, even today, the demands placed upon engineers during the Vietnam conflict.
During these demanding missions, the veterans faced many of the same issues Soldiers confront in Afghanistan today: maintenance of equipment, improvised explosive devices and an enemy able to hide in sight.
“For all we knew, the Vietnamese barber who cut my hair during the day was the same man placing IEDs along our routes at night,” said McWilliams.
Nevertheless, whether constructing the Bong Son bridge or improving lines of communication between North and South Vietnam, the “Never Daunted” battalion always completed the mission.
After the veterans of the battalion shared their stories, I had the opportunity to provide a presentation on the battalion’s current and future missions. Upon stating that we had two Soldiers currently on mission in Vietnam, one of the men playfully shouted, “Well, why did you send them back to that place?”
In spite of all the wise cracks and hilarious tales, the veterans’ actions made it clear, the most important aspect of military service is the camaraderie.
Johnnie Sanders, a retired warrant officer, put it best when he said, “At the end of the day, what made us successful were people trying to take care of people.”
The respect and esteem held among the retired Soldiers are unparalleled. Their ability to lean on each other and find humor in the most miserable of conditions speaks to the quality of men in the 84th Eng. Bn. during the Vietnam War.
Before departing, the men graciously thanked me for my service, and then invited me to come back to the following year’s reunion. To be thanked by a generation of Soldiers who sacrificed years of their lives in selfless service is a humbling experience.
Although the weekend in Charleston was brief, the opportunity to interview and befriend the veterans of the 84th Eng. Bn. is a privilege I will cherish throughout my life and career as an American Soldier.