Inside People

updated 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/11/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE AUDIENCE WAS transfixed as a helicopter descended in Miss Saigon to re-create the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam on April 30, 1975. No one at Washington's Kennedy Center was more moved, however, than the eight Marines who had flown on the last chopper out. "This play brought tears to my eyes," said S.Sgt. David Norman. "It really brought it all back."

Correspondent Jamie Reno had brought together six of the original 11 Marines—Maj. Jim Kean, 53, M.Sgt. Juan Valdez, 57, Sgt. Maj. Terry Bennington, 41, S.Sgt. Mike Sullivan, 48, Gunnery Sgt. Robert Schlager, 53, and Sgt. Stephen Schuller, 40—for PEOPLE'S 20th Anniversary issue in March. Inspired by the story, Miss Saigon's producers invited those vets—plus Cpl. Stephen Bauer, 39, who missed the first reunion, and Norman, 40, who came forward after seeing the piece—to a performance on June 25. "I could sense," says Reno, "they felt they were finally getting the recognition they deserved, albeit long overdue."

At dinner afterwards, cast member Charles E. Wallace said the vets' presence had made him "more determined to do a good show." He wasn't alone: the producers have asked the Marines to consult on the play. "They want to get this right," said Valdez. "We're talking about a real time and a real place."

That became painfully clear the next day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. As the eight men read the list of their fallen comrades, their thoughts turned to the three other Marines on the last helicopter. Reno still hasn't located sergeants Philip Babel and Duane Gevers, but S.Sgt. Robert Frain reportedly killed himself last year after a battle with depression. "I really miss Bobby," said Kean. "I wish he was here with us."

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