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A phone call from a stranger

The Tuesday before Veterans Day, I was greeted at my office by my message light flashing.

The caller, Gary Wullenweber, said he was looking for Stacey Boals, and left an Indiana phone number (no other message). When I returned the call, he said, "I'm a veteran and served in Vietnam," to which I replied, "Thank you for your service."

His next line should have been "Are you sitting down?" because what he said next literally caused me to crash down into my chair: "I was with your cousin Danny when he was killed July 12, 1969."

I was the oldest child in my immediate family, and my mother's nephew Danny was my part-time big brother when he visited. He lived in the Tri-Cities area, went to the University of Montana majoring in forestry, took a job for the summer with the Forest Service, then waived his college deferment and enlisted in the Army.

He was a prolific letter writer, and we lived his day-to-day routine through the letters he wrote. My aunt kept them all and published a small book in 1971 titled "Letters From Nam," and I've read my dog-eared copy over and over.

He was killed in an area called Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den) and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star, the Vietnamese Military Merit Medal, and the Gallantry Cross With Palm. But all I'd known of his short time in Vietnam was in black and white. The phone call from Indiana has brought it to a whole new level of reality.

"Sgt. Wully," as he was known to his peers, said there were a handful of them left who have been spending years contacting the families of the men who perished that day. One of the infantrymen, Bill Sly, had just published a book about "what really happened that day" titled "No Place to Hide: 'A' Company at Nui Ba Den."

My next question was "how in the h*** did you find me?"

He said his librarian had been helping him do research, and somewhere on the internet they found a letter or post I'd written on either Veterans Day or Memorial Day with quotes from Danny's book, my favorite being "But after all, I did volunteer knowing I'd be an Infantryman, and I have no complaints. My views towards the war are as red, white, and blue as ever. I feel that if we were not here, all of Southeast Asia would eventually be Communist, taken over as South Vietnam by force. Whether the price to be paid for Vietnamese freedom (?) is worth it or not, I don't know. I can merely hope it is."

Our call ended with me in tears and thanking him and the others profusely for their tenaciousness in personally contacting the families.

With all the scams going on these days, I was still pretty doubtful of this stranger's validity. But via conversations with him by my mother, my uncle, and Danny's sister (plus downloading the book from Amazon), we concluded that this person was for real.

This launched my obsession with learning the "real story" (as he had stated), because I was just in grade school during the Vietnam era. I devoured the book, dug into storage to find the book of Danny's letters and reread them, Google-Earthed Nui Ba Den, and read everything I could on it, and can actually point to the exact location at the base of Nui Ba Den where Danny and many others perished.

Bill Sly's book is a technical, graphic, and horrific account of what happened that day, with stories and interviews that have never been published. One of the generals summed it up later: "The Battle at Nui Ba Den, The Black Virgin Mountain, was an unnecessary, bloody, and poorly planned battle that witnessed the utmost in bravery, valor, and duty by American Soldiers."

This Veteran's day "gift" opened up old wounds for my family, but at the same time gave some closure, and brought clarity and truth to what Danny's parents had heard as to what really happened that day. And it gave me a new quest for knowledge.

— Stacey Boals lives in Eagle Point.