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Carnett: The shock of a war buddy's early demise

May 06, 2013|By Jim Carnett

"I always thought that I'd see you again."

Those words, steeped in irony, were penned by singer-songwriter James Taylor and describe a condition of life that many of us have experienced.  In my situation, they depict a relationship I've had with an old Army buddy.  

I've never forgotten Ralph and have always felt that one day we'd meet up again.  In fact, I've periodically attempted to contact him, naturally assuming he was still among us.

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Never did I postulate that I might be deluding myself.

But I discovered just last week that Ralph has been gone for almost four decades.  I now know that he died in 1974 at the tender age of 31.  All along I've visualized the two us treading similar paths in life: marriage, children, grandchildren and retirement.  His possible early exit never entered my mind.

Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964.  Following basic training and a stateside assignment, he was sent to South Korea in the fall of 1965.  That's where we met.

I arrived in Korea in June of '65 as part of a special levy of more than 4,000 troops.  About a dozen of us were assigned to an Eighth Army Support Command company in Seoul.  The typical tour of duty was 13 months, so we were scheduled to rotate home in July of 1966.

We became a tightly knit group, and Ralph attached himself to our crew when he came on board in September of '65.

Beginning in late June or early July of '66, individuals in our group began receiving orders for the states. We staged festive sendoffs at Kimpo Airport (now Gimpo) each time one of our number left.   

At about that juncture, I was the only soldier in the group to receive a six-month Korean extension.  I wouldn't be going home until January 1967.  I was OK with that.

Consequently, over a period of three or four weeks I went to Kimpo a dozen times to see friends off.  Each farewell was emotional.

Finally, Ralph and I were the last two remaining.  Because he'd arrived in the country a couple of months after our group, he wasn't due to go back to civilian life until October of '66.

We clung to one another like Romulus and Remus.  Our unit was now filled with replacements that we didn't know and — because of our "short-timer" attitudes — didn't care to know.

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