Reunion and Music Brings Solace to Vet

By 
Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
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Courtesy photos
Rick Waples, of Red Lodge, performing, finds reunions bring the brotherhood together to also find strength and comfort years after battle.

 

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Above, finding buddies after 50 years: Left to Right: Chuck Margando, Rick Waples and Mike Leva. Below, Emily Poole, the Waples’ granddaughter, watches her grandfather handle the gavel at the reunion of the Wolfhounds, 27th Army Division.

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Rick and Connie Waples, of Red Lodge, just attended a reunion. Unlike the many class reunions going on this summer, this was the 27th Infantry, 25th Army Division, 30 year reunion. It is the Waples’ 15th year of attending reunions. They attended their first reunion in 2006, held in Lexington, Kentucky. This year, it was held in Reno, Nevada, which they found a little bit smokey.Wildfires are sweeping toward the town of Tahoe (CA.), less than 50 miles away. “They evacuated Tahoe this morning! We just got out in time!” Rick declared on Monday, Aug. 30, on the Waples’ drive home to Red Lodge.Rick finds the reunions extremely rewarding, an opportunity to share time with his fellow veterans. “I’ll never miss another one.” At that first one he found one man he had served with-that connection was a great start. Rick was born and raised in Red Lodge. “I graduated from Red Lodge High School in ’66.” After one semester of college, he volunteered for the draft instead of enlisting. “At that time, one could volunteer for a two year enlistment with no choice of job choice or enlist for three years with one’s preference of job choice,” he explained. “Job choice equaling MOS (or military occupational specialty)” or choice of military service. Rick mused, “I ended up in the Infantry because of my 18 year old decision!”The 27th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed the “Wolfhounds”, is a regiment of the United States Army established in 1901 with a storied history. The Wolfhounds served in the Philippine–American War, in the Siberian Intervention after World War I, and as part of the 25th Infantry Division during World War II, the Korean War, and later the Vietnam War. The Wolfhounds earned a Valorous Unit Citation in 1967.69 Tet e 1970 invasion of Cambodia.This year, Rick had the good fortune to locate two men at the reunion with whom he had served and had been hoping to find. “Mike Leva, a really good friend of mine in Vietnam. For 50 years I had not seen him! He’s from Fresno (CA.),” he said.The second fellow was Chuck Margando. “He’s from Illinois. The three of us were really tight,” recalled Rick. “We were lucky to come out! It was a beautiful time (the reunion). All of us (at the reunions), all of us are brothers.”He explained, “It means a lot to us to find each other.” He recently located another “brother”. “We met in January this year in Florida. We stayed with him. He was originally from Queens!”Waples was a Sergeant and spent a year in the field from July,1967 to the first week of June, 1968. His Division was based at Cu Chi by Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and the Mekong River. He was in the thick of it. The tunnels of Cu Chi served as the base of the Tet offensive of simultaneous attacks by 85,000 North Vietnamese troops in January, 1968.  “In 11 months and one week,” he said, “we lost 54 men in my company, 268 wounded. When you think you’re averaging 80 men in the field at one time-that’s a lot of new blood that had to be injected.” “By November 1967”, according to History.com, “American troop strength in Vietnam was approaching 500,000 and U.S. casualties had reached 15,058 killed and 109,527 wounded. The Vietnam War was costing the U.S. some $25 billion per year, and disillusionment was beginning to reach greater sections of the taxpaying public. More casualties were reported in Vietnam every day, even as U.S. commanders demanded more troops. Under the draft system, as many as 40,000 young men were called into service each month.”  When Rick returned to America, reentry was abrupt and shocking. “I didn’t want anyone to know. Of course, my friends and family knew I’d served in Vietnam. It was a lot easier not to bring it up because of dissension. We had no preparation to go back home. Three days later-we were home.”He was flown to Travis Air Force Base in California. Then he was flown to San Francisco to catch a flight back to Billings. “I was dropped off at San Francisco Airport. I walked up a big flight of stairs. There was all this yelling and spitting! It was the first time I’d heard of anything like that. It really hit me hard.” Unlike World War II vets, Vietnam vets received no “thank you for your service”, common today.How do you recover from war if you were a warrior? Especially an unpopular war. Today, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is accepted but decades earlier, you were expected to be dropped back into society in a matter of days and resume your “normal” life. That is a challenge for any service member, much less a combat soldier returning from the front. Waples said, “All wars, if you’re in combat, it’s different than (an Army) truck driver or rear echelon.” He was in Air Mobile working off choppers.Waples finds solace in the reunions and in his music. Music was his retreat. “I’m a songwriter. When times get tough...” Some of his songs are about battle, some just about life.He’s recorded a few albums, the last just coming out is “Holes in my Soul,” (see Spotify) with a cover of boots with holes at the base. There’s also a video “Flag There Wavin” on YouTube.com and FB (rick waples music)  and he has a DVD out. On his first album one of his songs about battle is entitled, “You Can’t Imagine.” “There are five verses,” he says, “pertaining to battle or battle scenes in that song.”Waples acknowledges his music “helps me.” The experience he went through “gets in my mind. Every day, it’s in there somewhere. When I get to a point I’ve got to get out of my mind, I write or play.”At the reunion, Rick also served as auctioneer, something he’s done many times. He was happy his granddaughter, Emily Poole, was in the audience at the event. “She’s attending University of Nevada, throws the javelin!” he said proudly. She is one of 12 grandchildren from his five children.He reflected, “It is a brotherhood…not only Vietnam. There was only one Korean vet there (at the reunion) this year. There were a lot of younger guys-from Afghanistan and Iraq (veterans). About 70 percent were from Vietnam. It’s kind of how it was in 2006. More Korean than Vietnam (vets). We have taken their place.”He is quick to say, “I recommend reunions. Bring your wife! We are all suffering from PTSD and wives (can) understand that they’re not alone! You can’t get rid of it.” He likes playing at the reunions and often shares his songs. He hopes his music helps other veterans. “They seem to like it. I play off the new and old albums. There are stories behind them all.” 

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