- Associated Press - Sunday, May 24, 2015

OTTAWA, Ohio (AP) - On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 took humans to the moon for the first time, and the Dickman family buried their son. David Dickman was killed in the Vietnam War, and for 47 years, an Army form letter provided the only scant information they had about his death. And then in 2005, a phone call delivered two gifts, of information, and of friendship.

On a chilly October night, Diane Bishop received a phone call from a stranger.

“Are you Diane Dickman?” the man asked. “My name is John Guillory. I was David’s platoon leader in Vietnam.”

Bishop, an Ottawa native who is the Allen County Council on Aging executive director, said she was floored. She and her siblings had always wondered, over the years, how their brother died. Who was he with? Did he suffer? Did he say anything? And now, Guillory, calling from California, was answering those questions and more. The conversation that night was the first of many communications that turned into visits, first with Guillory and his family, then with other men in the platoon, Bishop said. They are close and dear friends now, bonded by David Dickman, who was everybody’s big brother.

Bishop was 16 when her brother was killed. David, 21, was drafted and arrived in Vietnam in July of 1968, and was killed Dec. 10. He was a sergeant and leader of his machine gun squad. He served in the 2nd Platoon, Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division Airmobile.

The world seemed upside down that year: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Amid protests at home and mounting casualties far away, Walter Cronkite announced on the evening news it was time for the United States to pull out of the war. But many of Dickman’s nine siblings didn’t know about any of that. The Dickman kids just missed their brother.

Early in 2005, a cousin asked Bishop if she wanted him to search for members of David’s platoon. He found Guillory, a retired first lieutenant, who was David’s platoon leader. The two were close, and Guillory shared details of David’s service his family had never heard. Guillory, 68, still the platoon leader, was searching out platoon members and members he served with. The Internet had reached a maturity that facilitated this kind of work, just as he retired after a 30-year career with a local utility in California.

“It was serendipity. For quite some time, I had thought about looking guys up. I had a little address book I took down guys’ addresses in, but I had never opened it up. And then the Internet came along,” Guillory said. “We scheduled a reunion, and by that time, I had found a great percentage of guys. But I never pursued any of the guys who were killed in my unit. I thought I’d like to, but I didn’t know how.”

Not only was Guillory not sure about technology, but he wasn’t sure how families would take hearing from him.

“Grief might be on the minds of people. I didn’t know if this was a good thing or a bad thing, if I would be more helpful or hurtful,” he said.

But Bishop’s cousin LeRoy “Doc Buck” Siefer found Guillory, through a website Guillory created. Siefer, himself a Vietnam War veteran, has since died from complications of Agent Orange exposure.

David, although he was drafted, was proud to serve. He seemed older than his 21 years, Guillory said. He took care of his men.

On Dec. 10, 1968, the platoon was caught by enemy small arms fire. It wasn’t unusual.

“I figure every three days, we were shooting someone or someone was shooting at us,” Guillory said.

When a squad member, Dale Bowman, was shot in the upper thigh. Bowman was a bigger guy, and the medic with them couldn’t lift him. David volunteered to carry him. Just as they reached the medical evacuation area and David had Bowman to safety, a sniper shot David in the neck. He dropped and died instantly.

Guillory wasn’t there; he was checking on other platoon members and “mopping up,” he said. When he came back, he saw the body bag and thought it was Bowman. When he learned it was David who was killed, Guillory “stood stunned and lost,” he said.

David was the first member of Guillory’s platoon he had lost.

“He was every man’s big brother; I didn’t know until I met Diane that I was a year older than Dave. They always tell you to maintain distance with men in your unit, but Dave was easy to get to know, to like. You could depend on him and he had a heart of gold. And he was a squad leader. In combat, you eat, sleep and do everything together.”

David received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star and Silver Star.

On his website, Guillory wrote a remembrance of David.

“Today, when I close my eyes, I can see Dave’s broad grinning mustachioed face,” he wrote. “Dave was only 21 when he was killed, but he seemed much older. He was like that favorite uncle you would sit and talk to for hours on end, in the shade, on a long summer day.”

Guillory and the Dickmans just clicked. David’s siblings are cut from the same cloth, Guillory said: generous and warm, easy to laugh, a pleasure and comfort to be around and quick to pick on him, as if he were a brother.

With a wife, children and grandchildren, a career and a good life, Guillory often thinks of the men who didn’t come home.

“I was lucky in Vietnam and lucky in life. I’ve had these fantastic experiences, and how many guys who were 20, 19, 18, and that’s all the life they got to lead,” he said.

The men do have different degrees of survivor’s guilt, Bishop said, and also still battle post-traumatic stress disorder. Dale Bowman, who was carried to the medevac by David, couldn’t at first meet his family. But then he did, coming to Ottawa. At the end of the visit, he approached David’s mother, and said, “You’re the reason I came here.” They were both able to have that experience, Bishop said. Her mother died in 2012 (Bishop’s father died in 1965), but had met many of the men David served with.

Bishop talks about the men “processing,” and rarely uses another word, “healing.” The relationships help on both sides, she knows, and knowing the men has provided healing for her. But she wouldn’t presume the same for them.

“When they talk about certain things, you can see they are right back there, back in the jungle,” Bishop said.

David’s sister Marcia Klima said she and her siblings have been able to communicate something very important.

“In a lot of ways, we went on with our lives, but in many ways, they couldn’t. So we’ve said, ‘We’re so glad you’re here. You are here. We’re so happy for you.’ We wanted to know they were OK.”

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