Remembering a bond from Vietnam: ‘He was that kind of soldier, that kind of man’
Remembering a bond from Vietnam
By Bill Corsair | Special to Stars and Stripes
On Feb. 29, 2012, combat veteran, patriot, husband, father, grandfather, businessman and friend Ron Piatek, 66, was laid to rest. Except for family, friends and a small band of brothers with whom he served in Vietnam, nobody noticed, and the world kept on turning.
In that respect, he was emblematic of so many of the American warriors who served during the Vietnam War. Piatek left the war behind him 49 years ago. Of course, as any warrior will tell you, it’s never really behind you; it’s always a part of you. In 1968, 50 years ago this month, our Rhode Island Army National Guard company was called to active duty. Back then, it was the exception, rather than the rule. It was the first time the 115th Military Police Company was called to duty in war time. Its 126 members -- including 49 who served in combat in Vietnam, many volunteering -- remain unheralded or even noted by the Rhode Island National Guard. Some say, “Courage is action in the face of fear.” There was a lot of both, yet nobody hesitated to answer the call.
Some died in combat, and for them, the “gift” was not to be. They are men and women who stand apart from others and whose sacrifice is forever to be heralded. Then there are the rest of us, who are blessed to return home to -- as we called it in ‘Nam -- “the world.”
We all know someone who has served in our armed forces. Some came home; far too many did not. On this Memorial Day, remember them with a prayer, and to those who returned, a “welcome home.”
Former Sgt. Ron Piatek was one of the many who stood to be counted when others walked away. This was my eulogy to him, with memories that will remain forever.
Top: Ron Piatek, left, and Bill Corsair serving in Vietnam in 1968. Inset: Corsair, left, and Piatek before Piatek's death in 2012.
“Friends then, friends now, friends forever. I’m Bill Corsair.
God didn’t give me a brother so I chose one. His name was Ron Piatek, and for over 50 years we have been “brothers.”
I first met Ron when we were serving in the National Guard as MPs. When our company was activated and sent to West Point to train against the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in night infiltration, recognizance and riot control, Ron was with me. When that training was complete and the company was designated Strategic Army Forces, we settled in to augment the existing MP company at the Academy, pass on our skills to the cadets and await further orders. With the second round of U.S. troop withdrawals in 1969, we were used as a replacement personnel pool, individually, for all combat divisions, under the levy system or as volunteers.
Our CO was, at that time, Capt. Joseph Del Sesto. He was a short, muscled man with the swagger of a 6-footer. You had to love him. He called me into his office and said, “Bill, I just saw a general with a customized jeep. ... Who’s better than us? I want one.” So I got together with Ron and the men at the motor pool and we built a custom jeep that would have been comfortable on the cover of any hot rod magazine.
Joe saw that jeep, jumped in the back seat and ordered his driver to DRIVE!
One of the commanding generals saw him, and the next thing I knew I was back in the CO’s office.
“Bill, they want to take my jeep away and put it back to the way it was. Don’t let them do it.”
“Is that a direct order, sir?”
“If physical force is necessary?“
“Whatever it takes”.
So at 6 the next morning, Ron, me and, as I recall, Tim Mulligan, were at the motor pool in fatigues, with side arms and clubs. Ron sat on the right fender, I sat on the grille and Tim on the left fender.
Shortly after, a dozen or so officers and executives showed up and a major stepped forward and said: “We’re here to take the jeep.” We slid down from the jeep, stood spread-legged, with arms folded and clubs in hand. “I’m under direct orders, I can’t let you do that, sir.” There was a long pause, a conference. Then they all left.
It took a couple of hours for them to persuade Joe to release the jeep. But for two hours, a captain and three young members of an MP Company from the smallest state in the union held West Point’s “best and brightest” at bay. Our company motto was: “They’ll Know We Were Here.” After that, I’m sure they did.
Shortly after, I received my orders to Vietnam and I was assigned to the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile), at the forward headquarters in Phuoc Vinh, just outside of Cambodia.
I was there less then a month when one of my men told me I had a phone call. On the other end I heard a familiar voice: “Uncle Bill, it’s Ron, I’m here.” Ron had been assigned to the same division, at a place called Tay Ninh, nicknamed “Rocket City” because, like Phuoc Vinh it was hit so often by rocket attacks and ground probes. I was able to visit with Ron a couple of times, and he was able to catch a ride on one of the Sky Troopers’ choppers to visit with me.
My last 52 days in country, I was assigned to the network in Saigon. Ron wanted to visit but couldn’t hitch a flight out. He stumbled across an abandoned ambulance and ... got it running and he was off down Highway 1 to Saigon. He drove the ambulance to a hospital, turned off the motor and left the keys. We often wondered what the conversation was like, when the CO of the hospital discovered that he was one ambulance richer than he was the day before.
These aren’t traditional combat stories; I leave those for others to tell. I will say it wasn’t possible to be with the First Cavalry Division and not see action. But with Ron there, I never worried about a breakthrough on his flank, because I knew he wouldn’t back down and if anything happened to me, he’d make sure I wasn’t left behind. He was that kind of soldier, that kind of man.
Neither one of us was real confident that we’d make it home, so when we found ourselves on a plane, in December 1969, headed for the states, surprise was just one of our emotions.
I’ve always felt that every day, after that, was a gift from God. I start off my prayers each morning with the words: “Thank you for another day.”
Ron’s gift was meeting and marrying his wonderful, loving and loyal wife, Gail, who was with him from beginning to the very end. His daughter Tracy. His son-in-law and, his pride and joy -- “The boys,” his two grandsons.
There it is, a wonderful gift from God, a present of love, joy and family, unwrapped one day at a time, for over 40 years. What a blessing.
In the First Cav, they had something we called a “body buddy.” You could designate your buddy to accompany your body home if you were killed in action. You’d meet with the family, help with the arrangements and tell them what a hero their son, husband or father was. After two weeks it was back to the war.
Ron, I didn’t forget our promise. Welcome home, buddy. Welcome home, my brother.”
A special breed
That then, is a small portion of my memories of Ron. He’s in my thoughts every day but especially on Memorial Day. You, no doubt have a hero of your own, if not family, perhaps a friend, an acquaintance or a buddy who stood shoulder to shoulder with you when the night was dark, the future in doubt and the only thing you were sure of was the courage of the man beside you. Heroes walk among us every day, but these heroes marched toward the sound of the guns. They’re a special breed of Americans and they, and all who wear or have worn the uniform, keep this great Republic free.
Our gift to you is a “present of love, joy and family, unwrapped one day at a time” in a free America. Cherish it; we will keep it and you safe.
Bill Corsair was an Army staff sergeant with the 115th Military Police Company, Rhode Island National Guard, and a member of the First Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Combat Air Medal. Before he was called to active duty, the then-disc jockey provided the original voice for Hasbro’s “Talking GI Joe." He is a member of the Radio Hall of Fame. He and his wife, Janis, are SAG Award-winning actors, living in New York City. This eulogy has been previously published.
By BILL CORSAIR | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: May 22, 2018