The 25th Anniversary of the First U.s. Deaths in Vietnam Calls Up a Legacy of Loneliness and Pride
07/09/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
The Cold War was over. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of a prospering America. And on July 8, 1959—exactly 25 years ago—the U.S. felt very much at peace.
That evening two American career soldiers, Maj. Dale Buis (rhymes with "ice"), 42, and Master Sgt. Chet Ovnand, 44, part of an eight-man U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group attached to the South Vietnamese Army, sat watching a movie in a rec hall in the village of Bien Hoa. Suddenly hand grenades exploded in the hall. The men rushed outside and, as Buis and Ovnand hit the door, machine-gun fire from Viet Cong guerrillas cut them down—the first U.S. soldiers to die in combat in Vietnam.
Back home the country took little notice of the incident. Vietnam had not even begun to be the inflammatory buzzword it would become after 58,010 more American deaths—and nationwide turmoil—during the ensuing 15 years. But in the homes of the two servicemen, the news of Bien Hoa hit so hard that, a quarter of a century afterward, at least two family members have never truly recovered.
Ovnand's wife, Mildred, got the first inkling of her husband's death from the Today show. She was sipping coffee July 9 in their small brick house north of Austin, Texas, when a newscaster announced that two Army men had been killed outside Saigon. Soon after, the phone rang, and as she recalled last week, "I heard a man say, 'I'm with the AP in Dallas. When did you first hear about your husband?' "
In Imperial Beach, Calif. 8-year-old Army brat Kurt Buis was tumbling around the house with his brothers, 6 and 4, when the word came. "I only knew something awful had happened," says Buis. "A doctor came and gave my mother a sedative." Then an aunt took the three boys for a car ride and to break the news.
Beyond their shared fate, the two servicemen could hardly have been less alike. A devoted couple, the childless Ovnands enjoyed puttering at home, settling in the town of Copperas Cove after Chet was assigned to nearby Killeen Base. In 1958 he put in for a year as a Vietnam adviser, figuring it would be easy duty. Mildred worked in the Base Service Club and waited in the house Chet had provided because "He didn't want to leave me without some place to call home while he was gone." Constantly homesick, he wrote almost every day. "Each letter would say 'Only 155 more days," Mildred recalls, " 'only 154 more days.' " The days ran out at 115.
Dale Buis was a wanderer who came home from time to time, as Kurt puts it, "to have fun and play with the kids." Then he would go off again. "Perhaps the reality of being a parent was more frightening than the prospect of getting shot," says Kurt. After the ambush Kurt's mother, Virginia, who died of heart failure last year, took a full-time job as reporter and advertising rep on the local newspaper. Kurt tried to act as father to his kid brothers: "I had to jump into adulthood early," he says. But the jump proved too long. He ran away from home several times and became a brawler. "I had a chip on my shoulder," he admits. But he gradually pushed it off himself.
As a teenager he pinned his father's medals on a crimson cloth next to his own awards for scouting, ROTC and Junior Coast Guard. Later he tried twice to enlist in the Army when Vietnam heated up, but was turned down; once for poor eyesight, once for back trouble. He now works as counselor at a San Diego youth center, where many of his clients are service kids with absentee fathers. And he is proud of the fact that an Army Intelligence building in Saigon was named after his father during the war.
However, after two divorces, he remains a solitary man, living alone in a book-lined town house with two cats, six goldfish, two surfboards and a stack of ski paraphernalia. "A lot of my friends say I'm just now starting to pick up the childhood I left behind," he comments.
Stoic Mildred Ovnand withdrew into herself, kept working at the service club and "just hung on to this little house. There wasn't much reason to do anything else." In 1968 a cataract operation forced her to retire from the club and left her eyes so weak that she now can neither drive a car nor read. Spirited but housebound at an admitted "65-plus," she too lives alone, with three dogs and memories of Chet, admitting that she "never quite got over it. I miss him every day. I just regret the whole damn war. I hated every minute of it." She has never visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. on which her husband's name and Buis' lead all the rest.
Nor has Kurt Buis seen the monument. But his feelings about Vietnam remain ambivalent. He dislikes it as "a political war." Yet he believes in a soldier's duty and remains bitter at the negative public attitudes toward Viet vets: "They were crucified," he says. As for the monument, he feels that "for the Buis family, perhaps, it was a bit of vindication, finally acknowledging that my dad's life, and all the others', were worth something."