Vietnam veteran reunited with fellow soldiers
SHELBY — John Rankin sat in an arm chair in the living room of his Main Street home. He twirled a cell phone on a table. It kept him busy as he talked about his tour during the Vietnam War.
The Shelby native was 21 years old when he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
He spent time with the D Company of the 82nd Airborne Division near the Cambodian border. He vividly remembers April 1969.
It was a time of constant, heavy fire from the enemy. But the memory of six fellow soldiers lightens the tension in Rankin's voice.
He's never forgotten them, the military family he shared days with.
"You have something in common with them that you don't with anyone else, sharing that life-or-death experience," he said. "You put your life in someone's hands, and they put their life in yours."
Rankin and his six comrades were all wounded during their tour. He kept in touch with a few of them after being honorably discharged as a private first class. Others, he never heard from again.
Still, their time in Vietnam remained. It would be more than 40 years before "The Seven" would reunite again. This time, they weren't in the midst of a war zone.
It started in Cleveland, Ohio, where Rankin's daughter lives. Her husband grew up in a home one block away from Carl Gulas.
Gulas served with Rankin during their time near the Cambodian border.
"We found him accidentally," Rankin said with a low chuckle.
The search for fellow comrades then began. A few clicks on the Internet led Rankin to Wyoming, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.
All six men were still alive.
They reunited for an October weekend in downtown Cleveland.
"To see them again? It was a little bit of everything, apprehension and wonderful," Rankin remembered. "We talked, joked, laughed, etc."
They revisited painful memories in between the laughter, including their fallen platoon sergeant and other comrades. One by one, they said aloud how they remembered certain events. It was for their ears only.
"We had to make sure they weren't dreams," Rankin said.
Rankin looked at the photo of himself and his six comrades on a computer screen. They gathered around a small wooden table.
Rankin didn't expect to leave the war with more than just memories, medals and a discharge certificate. He left with fellow veterans who not only fought alongside him, but carried the same memories.
"You have something in common that's hard to define and put into words," Rankin said. "They're all special to me."
Rankin says the same about James Callahan, one of his company's commanders. Rankin visited him this year in Normandy, France, where Callahan lives.
"I hadn't seen him since I left Vietnam. He took care of us," Rankin said. "We call him our hero."
Rankin continued to twirl the cell phone on the table's wooden service. A frame held a photo of whirring helicopters and falling paratroopers on his bookshelf. It reminded him of the Combat Infantryman badge he and his six comrades earned for their service.
"It's good to know you're not by yourself," Rankin said about his comrades. "The experiences of this fall: I didn't think I would leave Vietnam with six other men (as friends)."