I buried a friend yesterday. At this age, that’s not terribly unusual. What made this different is that Rick Chorlins was killed 45 years ago, and his remains have finally been brought home.
Rick and I were close when we were cadets at the Air Force Academy. Then, in 1967, graduation sent us in different directions, and we didn’t meet up again until late 1969. I was stationed at DaNang Air Base, South Vietnam, and had wangled a good-deal trip to Thailand for a few days. I was going to go for an orientation ride on a C-130 Airborne Command and Control Center (ABCCC), call-sign Moonbeam. It was a chance to get away from the unrelenting nightly rocket attacks, and see locals who were not burdened by war and who knew how to smile.
I arrived at Nakon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, called NKP, and headed to the Officers Club. And there, standing at the bar, was Rick, along with another classmate I hadn’t seen in over two years, Bob Moore. Meeting up with old friends after a long time is always fun. Running into them unexpectedly on the other side of the world is really special. We hung around together the entire night. After a few drinks, we had dinner, then went back to their hootch and caught up with what had been happening in our lives. We had all gotten married since we last saw each other. Rick had gotten a Master’s Degree. Bob had become a father. We swapped war stories. I told them what it was like to be a Forward Air Controller, and they told me what it was like to fly the A-1 in combat.
Truth be told, I felt like I was the kid and they were the grown-ups. I was flying a dinky little O-2A Skymaster, while they were flying the Skyraider, a gigantic, fire-breathing tail-dragger with a round engine that carried thousands of pounds of bombs under its wings and dueled with enemy gunners for a living. They were real fighter pilots. After hours of shooting down our watches with our hands, we said our good-byes and vowed to get together again, at some unknown time in the future. Great guys.
If you’ve read Hamfist Over The Trail, this story might sound familiar. Chapter 28 is the fictionalized account of my meeting up with Bob and Rick. Dave and Dick in the book are the fictional characters representing the real-life Rick and Bob.
Until now. After 45 years, Rick came home. His remains had been discovered in Laos in 2003 and sent to Hawaii, where DNA testing finally confirmed it was Rick.
Rick was buried at the Air Force Academy cemetery with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute, a missing-man fly-by, and the solemn playing of Taps. Generals presented flags to his two surviving relatives, his sisters, Cheryl and Toby.
Then we all gathered together at a restaurant to tell Rick stories. And we all had a really great time, reminiscing about Rick’s great sense of humor, his intelligence, and his dedication to duty. It was a great Celebration of Life.
And it was also a solemn reminder of the sacrifices the families of servicemen faced, and continue to face, when they send their loved ones off to war. They wait at home, never knowing if the sound of the closing car door in the street is a neighbor coming home or a military staff car with a Colonel and a Chaplain coming to bring news that will change their lives forever. That happened 58,286 times during the Vietnam War.