Clete and Deborah Sinyard invited me to a Pathfinders’ Reunion held in late March. I joined them for a day at Fort Benning and wished I could have stayed for that night’s barbeque. Informal reflections are often the most compelling.
Arriving a half hour early for our 9 a.m. rendezvous, I was surprised by a rapidly expanding line of visitors near The National Infantry Museum. More than a thousand people were headed to graduation ceremonies for the 197th Infantry Brigade.
We took The Heritage Walk to the viewing stands at Inouye Field. Lined with flags from every state and territory, each side features inscribed pavers and upright granite markers.
One marker I noticed referenced the 9th Infantry Division – “Old Reliables” Vietnam 1967-1970. Two soldiers were listed along with a tender note for one: “We are so proud of you. Love, Your Family.” His family’s small gesture was no doubt greatly appreciated. Affirmation was sparse for the soldiers of Vietnam.
Fifteen Pathfinders, plus wives and guests, sat in a reserved section. Their introduction evoked hearty applause, perhaps inspiring new graduates to follow their example of doing more than required.
Several attendees wore caps bearing the group’s motto: “First In – Last Out.” For most of us that would be hard to embrace, yet these men volunteered to find the safest paths for our troops. Their own welfare was a secondary concern.
Stadium-type seating overlooked a grass field with historic Harmony Church in the background. As 450 graduates marched past, Deborah said what I was thinking: “They look so young.” The reality of teenage soldiers was a bit unsettling.
Some didn’t look old enough or big enough to become warriors, but the same could have been said of Clete in 1965. Courage is perhaps more easily summoned during youth, before experience dilutes bullet-proof mindsets.
After graduation came The Memorial Walk of Honor. The serene setting is ideal for its multiple monuments, including one uniquely special to the reunion group: “Dedicated to the Pathfinders of the 11th Air Assault Division 1963-1965 and the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) 1965-1972. First In – Last Out.”
Colonel Richard Gillem reminded us we were there to honor those who are gone. A prayer of gratitude was offered then the names of the deceased were called. Someday they may be forgotten, but not yet.
The men assembled for pictures on the Colonel’s command. He was Captain Gillem in 1965 and Commander of the 11th Pathfinder Company when it formed. After leading them through training at Ft. Benning, he deployed with the Company to Vietnam. They still follow his orders but salutes now partner with joviality. Retirement has diminished his authority but not their respect.
After lunch we paused by the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall to find the name of Robert Taylor. He was a close friend of Clete’s, one of 58,000 plus casualties listed. The wall is eight feet high and 240 feet long, a poignant reminder of war’s heavy toll.
Our next stop was to see the world’s largest collection of tanks. The oldest, from 1916, is small and simple, nothing like the sophisticated equipment of today. A few had side panels cut out for interior viewing. The space is painfully confining, hardly allowing room for a deep breath.
Most of the Pathfinders have good mobility, and all seem to have a sense of humor. As we were leaving the tank display, one of them opened the door and held it for the rest of us. “I’m sorry you got stuck with door duty,” I said lightheartedly. “First in, last out,” he replied with a big smile.
I don’t really know those men, and I’ve only spent a few hours with Clete. My impression, though, is that their motto is inscribed in their hearts. It seems to have outlasted war and helped define their lives.
Someday I hope to visit with them again and stay for the barbeque, not for the fare but to listen and learn. Those who served our country with a “First In – Last Out” approach deserve to be heard if they choose to speak.
“They look so young,” said Deborah, saying what I was thinking. Her comment became more sobering as I recalled a picture of the 18-year-old Pathfinder now sitting beside her. And when we paused by a long wall filled with names, the cost of war seemed more tragic than before. For I realized those 58,000 soldiers were young once too.
Another good one! Hard to think of that many sacrifices given!