The movie "Platoon" came out in 1986 and won the Academy Award. But far more important was what the movie did for Vietnam veterans.
Written and directed by actual Vietnam vet Oliver Stone, the film, it was said, finally allowed Vietnam veterans to talk. Unlike World War II and Korean War vets who regularly gathered at VFWs and American Legions to share their stories, Vietnam veterans were noticeably quiet. Theirs was an unpopular war and many vets chose to bury their memories of it.
"Platoon" was supposed to change that. And that got me thinking of my high school chum John Brogna. We all knew John had been shot up pretty badly in Vietnam. We knew he was disabled. We knew he could hardly walk. But we didn't know much more.
I wondered if John saw "Platoon" and if what they were saying was true. But before I called him, I first called his best friend Ray Calabrese.
Ray and John were boyhood pals. They grew up together, walked to school together and played side-by-side on the last Pittston High and first Pittston Area football teams. No actual brothers were closer. But not even Ray knew what had happened to John in Vietnam. "Nope," Ray said, "he never talks about it."
Then I called John's old football coach, Bob Barbieri. To play for Bob Barbieri, particularly in those early years, was to love him, and no one loved him more than John. "Never said a word about it," Coach Barbieri told me. "So I don't bring it up either."
Then I took a deep breath and called John.
His wife, Sharon, answered and got him to the phone. "John," I began, "I called to find out if you saw 'Platoon.' If you did, has it freed you to talk about Vietnam?"
And John started talking.
It was about 6 on Friday night when I called John. When he stopped talking I looked at the clock. It was going for 9. The receiver was almost hot to the touch. I had a kink in my shoulder from pressing it to my ear. Pages and pages of notes littered the desk and the floor near my feet. I had gone through four pencils. And I was a mass of perspiration.
I left the mess on my desk and went home to bed. The next morning, I got in early and started writing. Funny thing is, I wrote the entire story without once looking at those notes. That's how captivating it was.
From boot camp at Parris Island to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, John told it all. Always willing to laugh at himself (John's favorite high school football story is about the time Coach Barbieri sent him, an offensive guard, in with a play and told him to warn everyone to not dare go offsides; and then John went offsides) he talked about standing at attention with other Marines when he spotted his high school friend John Ruddy getting off a bus as a new recruit. John wanted to get Ruddy's attention but knew he was not supposed to move a muscle. But he couldn't resist and finally blurted out "Ruddy!" And got a rifle butt in his gut for his troubles. Along with a smile and wave from John Ruddy.
And John talked about the day he was shot. Oct. 9, 1968. He had been "in country," as they put it, three months. The bullets ripped into his leg and down he went in a field of high grass. As he lay there in agony, he could hear the grass rustling at a distance and the sound getting closer. He did not know if it was friend or foe approaching.
And then John talked about the six months he spent in a hospital at Annapolis, Maryland, and the six months in Philadelphia. In Annapolis, he grabbed a young surgeon by the shirt and told him not to even consider cutting off his leg. The surgeon paid attention.
But the hardest memories, John said, are of the nights at those hospitals. "All you heard were the guys around you crying out in pain."
One day when he couldn't take it anymore, he left the hospital on crutches, grabbed a cab and took it to Temple University in search of Ray Calabrese, there on a football scholarship. "I needed a diversion," he said.
John and I talked about much of this again in 2015, nearly 30 years after the release of "Platoon" and nearly 50 years since that fateful day in Southeast Asia. I called John this time to inquire about The President's Lifetime Achievement Award he had received. The award, signed by President Obama, is presented to someone for "their lifelong commitment to building a stronger nation through volunteer service."
For the previous 22 years, John has limped into the VA hospital in Wilkes-Barre and visited with ailing veterans. Sometimes he’d bring donuts, sometimes he had a joke to tell, but most of the time he’d just listen to their stories. And every Tuesday he’d call bingo. "Hey," he said, "that's a major event."
At that time, John had logged more than 4,000 volunteer hours. The award was a big surprise. John and his wife were invited to a banquet. Little did he know he was the guest of honor. "Imagine," John said, "they gave me an award for something I love to do."
It is only the past few years that John has stopped being a regular at the VA. His war injuries have caught up to him and he’s having a hard time getting around. There’s no use telling him he’s done enough and deserves a rest. I know because I’ve tried. John always believes he could have done more.