It was Nov. 11, 2016 — Veterans Day — when my mobile telephone rang. A glance at the screen showed a number I didn’t recognize. My thumb moved toward the touchscreen to terminate another one of those annoying robocalls. But something in my head made my thumb jump to the answer button. “Hello,” I said.
“You don’t know me, but I’m Ray Wathen. Your father was my commander in Vietnam.”
Wow. People just don’t receive phone calls like that every day.
Dad served as the executive officer for a short time and then took command of the 285th Transportation Company at the port of Qui Nhon, a terminal service company responsible to discharge cargo from ships off shore and bring it across the beach at the city of Qui Nhon in South Vietnam.
In his soft Texas accent Ray explained that he served as the company clerk under my father’s command in 1966-67 and that their year-long tours of duty overlapped almost exactly. Ray decided that he wanted to track down my father half a century after they’d served together, and what better day than Veteran’s Day to make that connection.
He tracked down my dad alright, but sadly, all he discovered was an obituary. Dad died of a primary brain tumor in December 2012. Ray was able to make contact with my mother, who thought it would be best if Ray spoke to me, so she passed along my number.
Ray and I chatted on the phone for some time on that autumn afternoon and he related to me a few memories of my father. He remembered that the then-1st Lieutenant Haas’s second son was born early in their year together and wondered if I was he. He seemed particularly pleased when I confirmed that indeed I was that baby and he recalled smoking one of the cigars that Dad passed around the orderly room. Within a day after the call we’d become Facebook friends and casually followed each other.
Ray called again last March and said he’d like to meet. He, his wife Teri, and two grandsons were traveling from Houston to College Park, where Teri was participating in a research project at the University of Maryland. He’d realized that Carlisle Barracks — where the Army has stationed me — was only about a two-hour drive away from the university and he wanted to meet me.
Ray and his two grandsons arrived at Carlisle Barracks on a crisp weekday morning. I escaped from the office to meet them and we commenced a driving tour of Carlisle Barracks, a small installation but one with a history going back to 1757 and the French and Indian War.
We visited my office and I introduced Ray and the boys to several of my colleagues at the War College, themselves officers or retired officers. Ray clearly loved engaging with them, and when I returned later in the day, my colleagues told me how much they enjoyed meeting and talking to a Vietnam veteran as opportunities to do so are increasingly uncommon. We went out for lunch at a local restaurant and finished up our visit at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center’s museum before Ray had to start his drive back to College Park. In all we spent about three or four hours together.
A couple of things struck me about my two encounters with Ray. First was the impression my father made on him during their time together in Vietnam, over 50 years ago. Ray told me stories my father never mentioned. He even told me that as the company clerk, Ray had mastered my father’s signature, a skill he demonstrated at my desk. Second was the ease with which Ray and I related to each other.
Here were two men who were 25 years apart in age, one whose war time service was in Vietnam and another whose service was in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. Ray was a junior ranking enlisted soldier who served about three years in the Army and I am an officer with nearly 30 years of service. We had never spoken to each other before in our lives. But from our first encounter on the telephone two years ago, we were able to relate to each other and talk about our common experiences in ways that only soldiers can. We were kindred spirits. Soldiers. Brothers-in-arms. Family men. War veterans.
I visited my mother a few weeks after Ray came to Carlisle. By coincidence, Mom showed me a book of Dad’s army correspondence and mementos she had assembled from his files. You can imagine my surprise when, as I leafed through the pages of the binder, I stumbled upon a typewritten letter to my mother that talked about Dad and what he was doing in Vietnam. It was dated August 1967. It was signed by a soldier — Specialist Ray Wathen.
Col. Peter Haas is Course Director, Strategic Leadership, Department of Distance Education at the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.