Army buddies, from left, Don Clark, Mike Paton, John Sanders and Eddie Engstrom, reunited last week for the first time in 44 years.
Reprinted from http://www.magicvalley.com
By Mychel Matthews
TWIN FALLS • Something had been eating at Mike Paton for a long time.
He and his three best Army buddies survived countless ambushes in Vietnam, and all four men left the war-torn country in 1970.
None left unscathed; all returned home with emotional or physical wounds. Or both.
Last week, they reunited for the first time in 44 years, to laugh, cry and heal.
“I had been looking for these guys,” Paton said Saturday his Twin Falls home, where he lives with his wife, Sandy.
Paton lucked out one day last October when he called directory assistance. He told the woman on the phone that he was looking for his Army buddies. She searched through listings in several towns before finding John Sanders in Redlands, Calif., Donald Clark in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Eddie Engstrom in Riverton, Wyo.
The four had been drafted in 1969 and went through basic training together at Fort Ord in Monterey Bay, Calif.
“It was a dream come true” when the new friends were assigned to the same gunner truck — dubbed “Steppenwolf” — in Vietnam, Sanders said.
Clark agreed. “If one goes down, we all go down,” he said, as if the war were still on.
Clark and Sanders had wives back home and left Vietnam before the others.
“No one was saying a thing on the plane home,” Sanders recalled. “But as the wheels came down, all hell broke loose.”
Paton was thrown into a deep depression when his friends left. “I drank,” he said. “That’s how I handled it.”
Then, 13 days before Paton was to leave Vietnam, the enemy hit Steppenwolf as it was protecting the Han Jin Transportation Company Convoy en route to the city of An Khe.
Paton nearly died — he had bled out by the time medics reached him — and Engstrom suffered a horrible hand wound.
“I spent more time in the hospital recovering than I spent in Vietnam,” Engstrom said by phone from his home in Wyoming. He had to leave the reunion early last week.
Engstrom was the company clerk, “like Radar on M.A.S.H.,” Paton said, and had to get special permission to ride with the convoy that day.
Engstrom wanted to photograph the countryside, and Paton said he had promised “to bring him back in one piece. I felt so sorry and responsible.”
Paton was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Heroism for saving Engstrom, then maintaining suppressive fire on the enemy.
The war took other tolls on the men as well. All four said they have been diagnosed with cancer from exposure to Agent Orange.
“And there was no deprogramming when we came home,” Paton said.
Soldiers were ushered out of the unpopular war and into a large warehouse, showered and processed, then booted to the street, he said.
“We were told not to talk about it,” Paton said. His Army scrapbook remained unopened for years.
The four men spent the past week purging emotions and rebuilding their bond.
“It was wonderful to see the guys again,” Engstrom said Sunday. “I was so amazed that they were alive.”
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