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Six Vietnam-era veteran reunite after 50 years

Refugees fleeing South Vietnam in 1975 streamed across the flightline on Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, after arriving on C-141 aircraft during Operation New Life. Operation New Life ran from April 23- November 1, 1975, airlifting over 100,000 evacuees and refugees from South Vietnam.(U.S. Air Force photo provided by 15 WG historian office)

Six Vietnam-era veterans from across the country reunited this week at the Owensboro home of David Nation.

It was the first time all of them had been in the same room with each other in 50 years. They spent Wednesday and Thursday together catching up and recalling stories of their time together.

Jim Wathen of San Antonio, Texas, who served from 1967-1969, said he was the one who approached Nation to host the reunion.

“The saddest part that I have is that, at our age, we don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again,” said Wathen, who’s 77. “I just know these are some good guys here; they really are.”

The six men served together in the U.S. Army Pharmacy Service at Fort Polk, Louisiana.

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Along with Nation and Wathen were Walt Kozlowski of Detroit, Michigan, who served from 1966-1968; Tom Sweet of Arvada, Colorado, who served from 1967-1968; Terry Cole of Warsaw, Indiana, who served from 1966-68, and Mike Kavula of Cincinnati, Ohio, who served from 1966-67. Most of them were joined by wives this week.

“That was what was unique about the hospital is that we were from all points on the compass,” said Kozlowski, who’s 77. “…But what we all had in common is that we were pharmacists and around the same age.”

The six men were all certified pharmacists prior to being drafted, and received deferments while going through pharmacy school.

As captain, Nation, 77, was chief of the Pharmacy Service and commanded the men who were now dining five decades later on barbecue in his kitchen.

“A lot these guys had their lives interrupted,” said Nation, who served from 1966-1969. “They were already registered pharmacists. They got drafted and they did their service. It was their duty and they did it. And some of them were already established in careers.”

Because they had all gone through college, they were “older” when they went through basic training.

“We were 23, 24, 25 years old going through basic training with guys 18 and 19 years old,” Nation said. “We had four or five years on them and we were supposed to get out there and run with them.”

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While assigned to Fort Polk, they were part of a full-service hospital that ran a 24-hour pharmacy — a new concept at the time — that filled between 250 and 350 prescriptions per day.

“I can still remember the sound of the helicopters bringing in men from Vietnam,” Kozlowski said.

Although they all had the potential to be sent to Vietnam, none of them were ever ordered there.

And because of that, the six men downplayed their roles compared to the combat soldiers.

“I honor the guys who volunteered and there were those who said, ‘Hell yes, I want to go,’” Nation said. “I have to admit I wasn’t that way but I would’ve done my duty if I had to go (to Vietnam).”

With the exception of 76-year-old Kavula, the rest owned and operated their own pharmacies after leaving the service. Kavula spent his career as an academic.

Nation, who owns Nation’s Medicines locations in Owensboro and Evansville, said he will treasure the time he spent reminiscing with his old friends.

“We all knew each other before our lives really began,” Nation said. “Sorry to say, we all now on the other end of that deal. It’s just a blessing that we’re all here.”

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© 2019 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.