Sep. 18—A Huey helicopter glided through the air over the site of the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization [H.C.V.V.O.] reunion on Friday morning, its twin-blades shimmering in the sun and marking a deafening presence felt on the ground below.
Retired Army Spec-4 Louis LaParl sat in his camp chair and looked up to locate the aircraft before letting go of a brief smile.
"Man, I love that sound," he said. "Love it."
For the past 10 to 12 years, LaParl, a Michigan native, has made the trek down to Howard County to participate in the reunion, and this past week has been no different.
It's been nearly half a century now since the conclusion of the Vietnam War, and the reunion — held every September at the H.C.V.V.O.'s "Healing Field" along Indiana 26 — is now in its 39th year.
But for thousands of veterans like LaParl, going to the reunion is not just about honoring a tradition.
It's about finding solace, enjoying comradery and paying tribute to their buddies who never made it home.
"I was there (Vietnam) in 1970, 1971," LaParl said, "but whether or not you were spread out over all different years, these are all my brothers. I don't care what year they went over or when they came back. They all went through the same thing I did, and we've grown to be tight."
And it doesn't even matter if you were actually a veteran of the Vietnam War either, LaParl added, alluding to the H.C.V.V.O.'s decision last year to combine the Vietnam Veterans Reunion with the Sandbox Reunion, which honors those veterans who fought in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The service is all one great big happy family," LaParl noted. "Desert Storm, those are my brothers. Afghanistan, Iraq, those are my brothers too. Korea, World War II. It doesn't matter. ... I'm getting older now, and I don't know how long I can do this, but I end up going home at the end of this thing a lot more relaxed and feeling good about myself."
The same is true for retired Army scout dog handler Allen Mathews of Ohio, who said this year was his 25th year at the reunion.
Mathews then took a couple minutes to recall his Vietnam War days, remembering how he looked in the mirror at 21 and was surprised at how much war had aged him in just the few short months he was overseas in 1969 and 1970.
"I learned a lot while I was there, and I made some good buddies," Mathews said. "But I lost a lot of good buddies too."
He then paused for a moment, his voice breaking with emotion.
"It's a healing field," he said, referring to the reunion. "... I never really circle it on the calendar because it's just like Christmas and my birthday. I come every year. ... And I leave with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that I got to see friends, comrades, meet new people, talk to people and just be able to share in their lives."
A compliment like that is music to the ears of Jim Proffit, Army veteran of Operation Desert Storm and president of the Howard County Vietnam Veterans Organization.
Of course, Proffit himself has personally noticed the reunion's power, recalling that he first came in 2003 and was certain he'd only stay for a day.
"But then I drove home to Noblesville, got up the next morning and was back here by 7 a.m.," he said smiling.
And he's pretty much been a staple at the reunion ever since.
Proffit then began to speak about the beginning days of the Vietnam Veterans Reunion, saying it started with around 15 individuals who wanted to honor the 31 military personnel who were killed in action during the Vietnam War that from Howard County.
"I think it's absolutely fantastic," he said, "that out in the boonies of Kokomo in the cornfields, in the middle of Indiana, central part of the United States, that we're a worldwide hub of gathering. I say that because we have members from Australia, from England. ... It sort of started with 15 guys wanting to honor the lost, and it's grown into this."
Proffit added that he also hopes to see the reunion stay in the county for years to come, simply because there's really nothing quite like it, he said.
"Everybody is welcome out here on these grounds," he said. "There is a spirit. The ground itself actually feels alive. It's a living entity all on its own. There's a spirit out here of peacefulness on these grounds. ... You can talk to any veteran here, and they'll say that out in town, they're picking a table at a restaurant where they can see the exits and their backs are to the wall. If we go into town to get something, we're constantly on alert looking around.
"But as soon as we walk in this fence, the weight of the world is off our shoulders," Proffit continued. "We don't have to worry if someone comes up from behind us and puts their hand on us. We just turn around and give them a hug instead of turning around to hit them. There's a peacefulness and serenity out here that you have to come out to experience. I don't know how else to put it. It's indescribable."