At 4 a.m. March 30, 1968, Bravo Company Marines set out from their base at Khe Sanh to recover the bodies of 25 comrades killed Feb. 25 in a North Vietnamese army ambush.
Pfc. John DeBok, fresh out of boot camp, had arrived just a week earlier. He volunteered for the patrol. At 19, he considered himself "bulletproof.'' He wanted some "payback.''
Pfc. Robert Hanna, 20, carried 60mm mortar ammunition. He knew DeBok from Chicago, where they had enlisted.
As the sun burned through thick fog, enemy troops who had pounded Khe Sanh since January opened fire from a nearby tree line. Hanna scrambled to move forward and came upon a badly injured Marine. Mortar shrapnel had blown away his left eye, ripped through his legs. Blood covered his face.
Hanna pushed muscle and tissue back into place and closed wounds with bandages. The Marine looked up at him and said, "Bob, don't you know who I am? It's me, John, John DeBok.''
Twenty years later, Hanna described that battlefield scene in a moving essay for the Marine Corps Gazette. After treating DeBok, he suffered shrapnel wounds himself. He worried that DeBok didn't make it and said that after the Vietnam Memorial wall was completed in 1983, he visited it in Washington, D.C. "The relief of not finding DeBok's name on the wall was indescribable,'' he wrote.
The two men never saw each other again.
• • •
One morning in January 2008, a truck pulled up to John DeBok's house in Spring Hill. A large man with long gray hair and beard stepped out and knocked on the door.
He said he had noticed DeBok's car and, more specifically, the decals honoring the U.S. Marine Corps. He had noticed the Purple Heart license plate.
"The guy handed me a wood coin,'' DeBok recalled. "On one side it said, "School of Warfare Southeast Asia.' On the other, 'Pass It On.' He drove away.''
By coincidence, DeBok had been thinking about a recent congressional resolution proclaiming March 30 a national day of recognition for Vietnam veterans.
"That's the day I got hit,'' he said. "This has got to be a sign.''
DeBok, at the time vice commander of the Chester McKay VFW post in New Port Richey, set out to organize a celebration. He secured sponsors and bought food to serve more than 400 people. Veterans greeted each other with two words that have become standard for all those who served in the war, who returned to a divided country that often scorned them: "Welcome home.''
This Saturday, 45 years to the day that DeBok's fledgling military career abruptly ended, he will preside over his sixth annual event starting with a color guard ceremony at 11 a.m. at VFW Post 10167 in Holiday.
• • •
DeBok, now 64, sipped coffee at the VFW this week and admired an old picture somebody took when he was presented the Purple Heart. "Good looking fellow, eh?'' he joked. "All things considered.''
His survival had been in question, even after his evacuation from Khe Sanh. He spent six days in a coma at the Da Nang air base. After he awoke, the enemy shelled the hospital. "The hospital staff piled mattresses on me and gave me a .45,'' he said.
He spent several more months in hospitals as surgeons repaired his legs and gave him a glass eye. He left the service in December 1968 and moved to New Port Richey, where his grandparents had spent winters since 1954. Rather than rely on disability payments, DeBok worked as a shrimper and laid concrete blocks. He was a bouncer at west Pasco nightclubs. "It was part of me wanting to show I was still a man.''
The bar scene brought him trouble, including three DUIs. He went through three wives before finding Lynn 20 years ago. "She's my rock,'' he said. "I'm not always the easiest guy to live with.''
He still has nightmares. He wakes up sweating. "I'm in the field and left behind,'' he says. "That never goes away.'' That helps him relate to other Vietnam veterans he counsels.
He doesn't blame the war for his missteps. They started at 14 when he dropped out of school and ran away from home, away from a strict father who had driven trucks during World War II for Gen. George Patton. The Marines gave him a reason to be proud. Only 44 of the 77 men who entered boot camp with him graduated. "I still consider that my defining moment.''
His love for the Marines drove him to join several veterans organizations. He is currently vice commander for the largest VFW district in Florida and senior vice president of the Vietnam Veterans Association of West Coast Florida. He will be master of ceremonies at this year's Memorial Day service at Meadowlawn cemetery in New Port Richey.
• • •
Bob Hanna left the Marines and earned a master's degree in business at the University of Dayton. He has been married since 1974 and has six children and nine grandchildren. He works in the construction industry and spoke by phone Wednesday morning from his office in Cincinnati.
"I've thought of John many times over the years,'' he said.
Unlike DeBok, he didn't join veterans groups. He said his personality enables him to "look at the better things and put away the bad things.''
But he, too, has recurring dreams in which he can't find his weapon and ammo. "I have to catch my breath,'' he said.
He hopes one day soon to catch up with DeBok.
"March 30 marks 45 years since that day at Khe Sanh,'' he said. "Time goes by so fast. We have a lot to talk about.''