42 Years Later, Vietnam Veterans Reunite on Facebook
Veterans become "friends" again after a Las Vegas man contacted Ron Colby of Saukville using the social media site. Now, the two continue to rekindle their relationship, sharing photos of family and stories from their lives since the war.
Forty-two years after serving in the Vietnam War, Michael Sanzaro was flipping through old photos with his daughter Melissa in his Las Vegas home, lamenting how he had lost touch with the men he fought beside in Marines Corps Battalion 2/5.
“Have you tried Facebook?” Melissa asked. "Give me a name."
Sanzaro remembered Ron Colby, a Saukville resident who left his tour by helicopter when his lung was punctured by shrapnel from a booby trap. Having no knowledge of what became of Colby, they plugged in his name and Melissa composed a brief message.
“My father would like to know if you served in golf co 2/5 in vietnam in 1970?” Melissa wrote on Jan. 12.
Twenty-two days later, Colby found the message and responded right away.
“Yes, I did,” Colby wrote. “Who is your father? I'm sorry I didn't answer this much earlier. I didn't even see your message until now. I'm still trying to understand this medium. Obviously, I'm not from the computer age.”
Colby clicked on Melissa's profile where a photo caught his eye. He could just make out Sanzaro’s aged face under a baseball cap, smiling with a young girl whom he would later introduce as his granddaughter.
They're not the first people to reunite on Facebook; stories abound of runaway teens, earthquake victims and high school sweethearts finding each other on the site. But as part of an older generation that has been slower to take to new media, they illustrate the spreading ubiquity of social networking as a way not only to form friendships, but to never let go.
1,800 Miles Apart and a Click Away
In a rapid-fire back-and-forth message chain — uncharacteristic of both men’s minimal computer habits — Colby and Sanzaro exchanged shared memories from Vietnam, and snapshots of their new lives 1,800 miles apart from each other.
They counted children and grandchildren, and recounted almost half a century of life to the friend they had risked dying with.
"I've been thinking about our time over there quite a bit in the last few years and would like to continue to 'talk' with you," Colby wrote.
As many Vietnam veterans did after returning home from the war, Colby and Sanzaro had lost track of most of the people they served with, returning to lives a world away.
"You can't be closer to somebody when you're depending on them for your life," Colby said. "But when it's over, you just lose track. It's a whole different life once you're out of there."
Some Marines may have cut themselves off purposely, he said. In a tour riddled with deadly booby traps and constant trepidation, there are some memories that are easier forgotten.
"Our mission was to constantly patrol the jungles and rice patty areas and keep the enemy from building up," Sanzaro said. "Probably the biggest fear of almost any combat soldier was the booby trap. No matter where you were walking, anywhere you stepped could have been your last step."
Sanzaro said he felt some hesitation in reaching out to those who got injured, even the man he carried back to safety.
"Maybe I always had a problem with dealing with guys that were wounded," he said. "I knew them when they were healthy and great and maybe I was afraid to see them after they were healed."
But for the most part, the group simply lost touch as they split ways to other tours, hospitals and homes — often lacking constant phone numbers or addresses.
“I came home like I never left,” Sanzaro said. “But I never, ever forget my friends that were killed and wounded.”
Faded Memories Resurface
Colby and Sanzaro both said they've been spared post-traumatic stress from the war, but confrontations with people and relics from that time do bring back strong feelings. For Sanzaro, it happened first when he saw a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and he found the name of his best friend who was killed by a booby trap.
"Within a minute I broke down and started crying, and couldn’t stop crying for a full day," Sanzaro said. "I copied his name with a tracer pencil and wrote him a really long letter. I had no idea I had all that emotion built into me, hiding all those 40 years. I always thought I was one of those guys not affected by Vietnam."
The new contact has brought back more memories good and bad, and encouraged both men to share more about the war with their families.
“Hopefully they’ll never have to find out what war is really like,” said Colby, whose son recently entered the Army. “I’m very scared for him, that he might have to go through what I did.”
But the men pass around good stories, too, of sharing watermelon in the shade, taking photos with a Kodak Instamatic, and developing unforgettable friendships.
“You only know a guy for five months, but you think about him every day of your life,” Sanzaro said. “It’s just been a great thrill to talk to him.”