How 14 Friends From the Vietnam War Lost and Found One Another Again

"It was a lot more than just cavalry guys getting together. We really became true family."

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a group of Vietnam veterans who have been having regular reunions since the 1980s. They call themselves "The Cavily"—a portmanteau of cavalry and family. There are 14 vets in the Cavily, and the reunions have expanded to include their spouses, kids, and grandkids. In this interview, five of the veterans discuss how they got close during the war and then fell out of touch, and the letter one of them wrote that brought them all back together.

The Friends

Lee Barron, 71, who lives in Houston, Texas
Ed Bodzinski, 71, who lives in Belchertown, Massachusetts
Terry Bradley, 70, who lives in East Otto, New York
Jerry Hart, 71, who lives in Shreveport, Louisiana
Jim Teegarden, 74, who lives in Kansas City, Missouri

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck:  Could you quickly tell me, each of you, what your path to the Army was?

Lee Barron: I was going to college and got drafted in November of '67. Arrived in Vietnam in June of '68.

Ed Bodzinski: I got drafted in 1967. I went to basic training the day before Thanksgiving in 1967, and from there I went to Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) in Louisiana. By May 5, I was in Vietnam.

Terry Bradley: I graduated from high school in '66. I knew I was going to get drafted anytime. I got tired of waiting, so I did volunteer for the draft in '67. I went to basic training and then I went to AIT in Louisiana, where I met Ed.

Jerry Hart: I was working as an automobile painter in 1967 and was passed up for a promotion. My boss said the reason was that I was draft material. So I called my local draft board and asked, "What's the chances of moving me to the top of list?"

Beck: Because you didn't get the promotion, you were like, Let me just go now?

Jerry: Yeah. Let me get it out of the way. I got to Vietnam May 9 of '68.

Jim Teegarden: You can see that Terry, Ed, and Jerry all arrived in Vietnam really close to the same time. I'm the oldest in this group. I got drafted in July of 1967, arrived in Vietnam the end of July 1968. You had a commitment of 12 months of service. Our arrival dates overlapped, so our coming-home dates overlapped also. Although I was injured, and my tour over there lasted seven months. I got home in February of '69.

Members of the Cavily pose in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC. Courtesy of Lee Barron.

Beck: Give me a brief overview of what your platoon's responsibilities were.

Lee: Well, there are two parts to it, because of the weather in Vietnam. It rains half the year and doesn't rain half the year. We were an armored cavalry, and the tanks and vehicles would sink in the mud during half the year, so that half we spent guarding the roads for convoys and making sure that no damage was done to the roads.

The other half of the year, we were out in the boonies of the forest surrounding Saigon and going toward Cambodia. Our job was to sweep through and obviously look for the enemy, but also look for stores of weapons and/or food. We would set up at night, wherever we were, and we'd make a circle just like a wagon train, with all of our weapons facing outward. That was the safest position you could be in at night. About every 45 days we would come in to the 25th Infantry Base for two to three days, for maintenance, and then go back out.

Terry: Ed and I, we arrived in May. That was the end of the dry season. A lot of bad things happened when we first got there because of that. The dry season was when most of the action was. And then the monsoons came and things leveled out a bit.

Beck: There are 14 of you now who are part of the “Cavily.” Were there more people in the cavalry with you at the time?

Terry: A cavalry troop would be about 200 people. A platoon is 40. We were just special friends in our platoon.

Beck: How did you guys start to get close after you arrived?

Jerry: The 14 of us clicked together as friends, whereas the other people in the platoon, they were okay. It's like in high school, you know? You have your group that you hang with. We didn't have any real problems with the other people, but we weren't close to them.

Lee: There were four people per vehicle, and of course, those four would usually become close more often than not. And when we're together at night, we would get to visit with each other, and like Jerry said, it's like in high school. You can kind of tell who you can get along with, who thinks like you do.

Beck: Do you remember your first impressions of each other?

Terry: Jim Teegarden, he was a buck sergeant. We were all privates at first. He was one of our leaders; we depended on him a lot.

Jim: As a sergeant, as a noncommissioned officer, there is a little bit of a delineation between you and the men under you. At first they're probably a little bit standoffish, until they get to know you. Terry and Ed were on an armored personnel carrier with another sergeant I became close to. I would go down to their track and visit him and intermingle with Terry and Ed, and found they both had very, very good senses of humor. Terry would get a local newspaper from his small town, and we'd laugh at some of the articles.

Beck: Like what?

Jim: Just simple little things, like Mary Jo and Tom Smith had dinner with some other family at their home, and it would go on for another paragraph. It was humorous to us because I was used to more in-depth news reporting than that.

Lee: I was lucky, because within a week of my getting out in the field, Jerry Hart became the commander of the track that I was on. And it was pretty evident from the word go, that Jerry is highly organized. That was a very good feature to have, given that we were in chaotic times a lot. Jerry was very good at getting everything lined up and the ammo stacked right, the guns ready to fire, and so forth.

Jerry: When Lee got there, it was real evident he was highly educated. He had probably the biggest curiosity of anybody I'd ever seen. He was trying to learn the Vietnamese language, all their customs. He knew every movie that had ever been made. He would tell us movies at night—since we couldn't show a movie, we called it "telling a movie." Then Jim Teegarden, he got there as a sergeant. But he was resented by the existing sergeants because he had made his rank so fast. So he had a rough go of it trying to coordinate with the higher-ranking people in the platoon. But he had all of us looking up to him like he was God, 'cause he just really had his act together.

Terry: Especially after we'd had Rango for a lieutenant.

Lee: We had one lieutenant who really didn't seem to know a whole lot about anything, and made lots of mistakes. There used to be an old TV show called Rango, about the Wild West. Rango was really a buffoon-type person. So when this guy got there, somebody called him Rango, and from that point on, that was his name. We don't even remember his real name.

Beck: You guys don't have to share anything that's too hard to talk about, but I know you saw some combat, and probably had some tough experiences. Did it feel different becoming friends with someone in that kind of environment as opposed to how other friendships in your life have started?

Jerry: Yes, it definitely was. When you're under fire, you very quickly learn to depend on the people you're really close to.

Lee: That’s what's going to allow you to survive—if they're doing their job. It’s really different than with somebody back here in the States, where they can be your friend, but you're not wondering whether they're going to run if they get shot at. When you get in a bind, and you see your friends still standing and still doing their job, that gains you a lot of credibility.

Jim: You don't really have a choice in who is assigned to your vehicle. That's done by somebody else. So the mix of people that you're depending on is just by chance. Some of them prove to be very reliable, and some, not so much.

Terry: I’ve always been amazed at how close we are, and we really don't have much in common other than that. But we're still like brothers, even though our occupations, our upbringing, the size of our families, everything was so different.

Beck: So you guys came back to the States in a slow trickle. Did you keep in touch at all when you got back?

Jerry: We lost touch pretty much right away. When Jim Teegarden got shot, that was probably the heaviest moment of the time I was there. There’d been some other guys that had gotten shot and killed, you know, but I wasn't really close to them. I was just plumb disgusted when I found out that he'd gotten shot. Then he got evacuated out of there, and I never heard anything more about him. I didn't know if he was alive or dead.

Members of the Cavily in Vietnam. Courtesy of Lee Barron.

Beck: Wow. How did you all get back in touch?

Terry: I was wondering, over the years, whatever happened to the rest of these guys. I really had no idea. All I had was these addresses that I wrote down when I left. It was around Thanksgiving time of '81, I think, and I decided to write to these guys. I was a truck driver at the time. I remember I sent the letter out, and three days later, I'd called home. My wife said that someone had written to me, and I was shocked.

Beck: Do you remember who it was?

Terry: It was a guy named Bill. It was a real long letter and I was real emotional about it, 'cause it was the first time anybody had written. But he was so upset about the war that he really didn't wanna have anything to do with anything.

Beck: So he's not really part of your group now?

Terry: No.

Lee: I talked to him. I had said, "It's looking like we're going to get together." And even though he was the first one to write back, he told me that he didn't want to do it. He didn't want to see anybody. It's too many bad memories.

Terry: A few days later, I got another letter, and I was pretty excited about that, but at the same time, I'm thinking, I don't know if these guys are crazy or if they're drug addicts, drunks ... I was very glad to find out that my first impression was right. They're all great guys.

In the beginning we were afraid, I think, to talk to each other on the phone. It took a couple of letters before we decided we'd better make a phone call. Once we did, the voices were the same, and that was really comfortable.

Lee: I was afraid to find out what happened to some of the people. 'Cause it's a big unknown. I was afraid to find out that some of them had not made it. I was so glad when Terry put his note out, and people responded, that pretty much everybody that I would've wanted to see was okay.

An early letter from Terry Bradley that brought the Cavily together. Courtesy of Lee Barron.

Beck: When was the first reunion? What was that like?

Lee: Bruce Hanson, who was my driver in Vietnam, decided, because he was single, to host the first reunion, and that was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. There were five of us. There was Ed and I, Terry, Bruce, and another guy we call Pee-Wee. And of course the first thought was Are we even going to like each other? It only took about 10 minutes to realize it was like we'd never been apart. It worked out that well.

Ed: For me it was really emotional, and by the time we left, I felt pretty drained.

Beck: You've had reunions pretty much every year since, right?

Terry: It started out every two years. As time has gone on, there's usually a wedding or something almost every year now.

Jim: I think truly the reunion that brought us together as a family was one that Jerry hosted in Helena, Montana. That was in '87, I believe. I brought my family, and other people brought their families, so the kids got together and they started bonding. There’s a nice lake there. And Jerry had a jet boat, so we water-skied, the kids played in the sand, and he rented a bus for all of us to go down to Yellowstone for a couple of days. It was tremendous.

Lee: There’s one other thing that makes our group unique, and his name is Gary Quay. He was our captain in Vietnam. A lot of people have reunions, but it is kind of uncommon for an officer to be invited to enlisted men's reunions.

One of the reasons Gary was so different for us was he came right after Rango, and it was like night and day. We saw how bad an officer can be, and then suddenly there was Gary, and we saw how good an officer could be.

Jim: For him to come down to our level and go to our reunions is a testament to the bond that he shared with his men, of how much affection he had for the guys that were doing the work.

Jerry: The first time he came was at the reunion we had in Helena.

Lee: It was pretty obvious that this was going to be a family event, not just a guy event, from then on.

Beck: Was that when you came up with the term Cavily? Whose idea was that?

Terry: That’s Jim Teegarden.

Jim: I was just thinking to combine the two words—cavalry and family. I'm getting choked up now. It was a lot more than just cavalry guys getting together. We really became—

Lee: True family. It’s amazing to have spent all these years watching the kids grow, and then the kids have kids.

Beck: Are your kids or grandkids close as well?

Jerry: Yeah, they don't really need us older generation, because they formed their own friendships.

The group’s extended families pose for a photo at a reunion in New York. Courtesy of Lee Barron.

Lee: At our reunion in Nashville, there were five of them that got up and gave testimonials as to what the Cavily meant to them.

Beck: Do you have your next reunion planned?

Jerry: Yes, the first week of June this year, just the guys—we're not bringing any families–are coming to Shreveport. We’re gonna have a guys’ reunion.

Lee: The reason is because one of our members is fighting cancer right now, and it looks like he's beat it. So we expect him to be healthy by the time the end of May rolls around. Ordinarily, we might not have a reunion until next year. But we wanted to celebrate him beating cancer, and so Jerry agreed to host it.

Beck: The info you guys sent me before we spoke mentioned something called “the last two men standing.” Could you tell me about that?

Jerry: I saw a thing on TV many years ago—there was a group of World War II vets that had been in France, and they liberated this particular village, and there was a big villa there. Down in the villa was a huge wine cellar, and they had all kinds of different expensive wines and champagnes and cognacs and stuff. Of course, they liberated that, too.

But the Army found out and came in and confiscated it all. Later on, they started reuniting occasionally, and one man comes in and he's got a bottle of cognac. He shows it to all the guys, and they say, "How'd you get that?" and he says, "Well, I can't tell you, but I cheated the Army and I got some home.” They said, "Let’s save it until there's only two of us left. When the rest of us have died, you open it and we'll drink a toast for ‘em."

So I was telling the guys about it, and they said that's a great idea. We bought a bottle of cognac, and it travels around. At each of our reunions, it goes to a different person. I think Bruce in Minnesota's got it right now. There’s a box that this came in, it's a very nice box. And there’s a letter in there, so, for instance, if I had the bottle and I died or something, and my family came to go through my stuff, this letter has got everybody's addresses and phone numbers and explains what the purpose of it is, so that it can continue traveling.

It’s got everybody's name on the label. It's got their date of birth, their name, and their nickname, and then there's a blank space for their date of death. And luckily, we haven't filled in any date of deaths yet. When there's two of us left, we'll drink the bottle.

Terry: I'll be one of 'em.

Lee: That's a challenge.

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