I’m in San Juan, Puerto Rico this weekend as the volunteer videographer/photographer for an annual reunion of Army veterans that served in Vietnam between 1967 and 1971. Gatherings like this aren’t so much about the food or the place; they are about the people and the experience that connects them–people like Manuel and Brian and Charlie and Rolla, guys (and now their families, too) that see each other maybe once a year, and each time in a different city.
Folks did enjoy the place, too, of course. Puerto Rico means Rich Port in Spanish, and San Juan is the second oldest European settlement in the west (after Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic). The city was first settled by Ponce de Leon in 1508, and it is chock full of history. The fort here dates to the 1500s, and it was still in use as late as World War II. The island also has a proud history of military service, with nearly 50,000 Puerto Ricans serving in Vietnam–including SGT Manuel Rivera, who hosted this year’s reunion.
The weekend has been packed with activities like tours of the Yunque Rain Forest and the city, including a visit to the Governor’s mansion and the Capitol–but the main attraction is the people standing in this room. There are nearly a hundred folks here from places ranging from San Juan to Maine to California, and they have more in common than one might think–especially when one surveys a room mixed with suit jackets and t-shirts.
Conversations ranged from catching up on the past year to good-natured kidding about things that happened almost 50 years ago–like the time that PFC Mead bought a pet monkey in Bien Hoa, or the time that Ken “accidentally” bumped the Colonel into a trailer full of ice water. Oh, and apparently getting a bulldozer stuck in the mud is something that stays with you for life (I’m going to keep that in mind the next time I head out to clear a few acres).
Mixed in with the tours and banquets was a touching memorial service for the 21 members of the unit that didn’t make it home, a ceremony that has become the centerpiece of each reunion going back to 1996. A candle was lit for each of the soldiers lost in Vietnam, a somber moment in the midst of a weekend that otherwise felt like a celebration. I never served so I can’t even pretend to understand, but it seems that remembering these soldiers is the very least that we can do–just as was done last year in San Diego, and just as will be done next year in Indianapolis.
All in all, it’s a wonderful weekend of fellowship and remembrance. The veterans and their families that came to Puerto Rico traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get here–some even having to dodge Hurricane Joaquin on the way–but right now they are all right at home.