Unit Honors Vietnam Veterans With Run in Afghanistan
By 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux, USA
American Forces Press Service
FORWARD OPERATING BASE FENTY, Afghanistan, Nov. 15, 2007 “On the 8th of November, the angels were crying as they carried his brothers away. … There were few men left standing that day,” sings the country duo Big & Rich in their ballad commemorating the fall of 48 American soldiers from 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1965 in Operation Hump in Vietnam.
Army Pfc. Zachary Wierman (in black T-shirt), a signal support system specialist, passes on a bayonet decorated with the national colors to Army Pfc. Brian Fitzsimons, an automated logistical specialist, during a 24-hour race Nov. 8, 2007. Both soldiers are in Company B, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion, deployed to Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan. Photo by 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Forty-two years later, members of 173rd Airborne Brigade, other servicemembers and civilians deployed here honored the fallen soldiers of Operation Hump by participating in a 24-hour relay.
The event celebrated unit cohesion, teamwork and esprit de corps, officials said. Participants ran along a nearly three-and-a-half mile route lined by miniature American flags and passed a bayonet, which is depicted on the unit patch of the 173rd ABCT, to one another in lieu of a baton. The event was made even more special by having a Vietnam veteran, Rick Petersen from the Facility Engineer Team, participate.
“I think it is a great idea. I think it is great that everybody is going to come out here and support one another. It is great for camaraderie,” said 2nd Lt. Kate Fullenkamp, a quartermaster officer and platoon leader in Company A, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion (Airborne).
Her platoon of 40 entered with two seven-person teams. There would have been more volunteers, but mission requirements did not allow all of her soldiers to participate, she said.
“We had more than seven people who wanted to do this, but we picked the best seven,” said Pfc. Ikechuku Odi, a combat engineer with Road Clearance Patrol 4, Company A, 70th Engineer Battalion, deployed from Fort Riley, Kan.
Ever since they found out about the race, the engineers ran two laps every day when they didn’t go outside the wire, in preparation for the challenging race. When Odi heard about the race, he thought, “We are going to win this,” he said.
“Our tactic is simple: run as fast as you can,” he said, after completing his first lap in a little over 22 minutes.
“Some people are out here for the physical aspect, … but there are people that are out here because it is fun and you enjoy it and you will always remember it, for sure,” Fullenkamp said.
The rules of the run were pretty simple. “Basically it is a 24-hour relay with seven-man teams. One runner must be running at all times,” said 1st. Sgt. Drake F. Sladky, Company C, 173rd Brigade Support Battalion. An avid sportsman, he was one of the masterminds behind the event.
Sladky said many in the 173rd Airborne liked the idea of organizing another run after running a 10-kilometer race shortly after the unit’s arrival in Afghanistan. Originally they were aiming for New Year’s Day, but then they received a disk containing the music video, “8th of November,” from James Bradley, a member of the 173rd Association. “We knew that we had to do some sort of race in commemoration of that date,” Sladky explained.
“Everybody in the company helped out, mostly by getting sponsors for the race day and organizing the registration,” Sladky said. As a result, a total of 21 teams signed up.
“We were really lucky; we started early and got sponsors. … The 173rd Association sent the race T-shirts. Niles Harris (the Vietnam veteran who was the inspiration for the country song and was himself injured on Nov. 8, 1965) sent about 200 autographed T-shirts,” Sladky said.
Some of the shirts ended up as prizes, but the majority were sent out to subordinate units of the 173rd who are deployed to other forward operating bases and weren’t able to participate in the run. Prizes included name-brand golf clubs, shirts, hats and a multitude of other things. No team went home empty-handed.
Odi was right when he said he thought his team was going to win. On the 9th of November, 2007, perhaps the angels were smiling a little as his team carried their prizes away.
The winning team completed a total of 51 laps, covering, fittingly, just over 173 miles in the 24-hour period, and consisted of: Staff Sgt. Luis D. Rivera, Pfc. Ikechuku Odi, Pfc. Vincent A. Fiorillo, Pfc. Joshua M. Contryman, Sgt. Eric E. Chappel, Sgt. Bradley J. Edmonds, and Spc. Tin T. Tran -- all combat engineers.
(Army 2nd Lt. Monika Comeaux is assigned to 173rd Brigade Support Battalion.)