Essay on friendship earns Vietnam vets a Super Bowl trip
By SHAUN RYAN | The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. | Published: January 13, 2018
PALM COAST (Tribune News Service) — When a longtime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran phoned Palm Coast resident Randy Kusiak from Chicago on a recent afternoon, he made a curious request.
"You stick by the phone," said James Zwit.
The next call came from Lake Forest, Illinois. Kusiak could think of no one who would be phoning him from there, but he answered it as requested.
The caller said he was representing the Chicago Bears. His reason for calling: Kusiak and Zwit were going to the Super Bowl.
"I couldn't believe it," Kusiak said.
FORGING A FRIENDSHIP
At 19, Kusiak was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. The son and nephew of World War II veterans, he made no attempt to defer service; it was a matter of honor.
"I didn't want to put any disrespect on my family's name," he explained.
So in October 1970, the young combat infantryman found himself reporting to his platoon in Southeast Asia.
Zwit, who was already there, got a radio message from another soldier saying, "Z, we've got a new guy from Chi-town."
Zwit asked him one of the defining questions for anyone from the Windy City: "Cubs or Sox?"
The message was relayed and came back "Cubs."
"Get rid of him," Zwit said. "I can't trust him."
Still, as Zwit explained this week, "I took him under my wing – even though he was a Cubs fan."
Six months later, Kusiak, Zwit and the rest of their company were on a mission in the Thua Thien Province to recover the bodies of men killed in action.
"We ran into a very big-sized element of NVA soldiers," recalled Kusiak. NVA refers to North Vietnamese Army. "We had about 85 guys. I'd say they had regimental size, maybe 500."
During the ensuing firefight, their lieutenant went down and Zwit made his way to the front of the action, picked up the injured officer and carried him over his shoulder toward safety.
"As he started moving back, he got hit with either an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) or what you call a satchel charge," said Kusiak, who saw it all from where he stood. A satchel charge is an explosive in a sack that is thrown at combatants.
The lieutenant didn't survive, and Zwit was seriously injured.
Kusiak and two others dragged their comrade behind a log to shield him from further gunfire. When the medical helicopter arrived, the pilot could not land and instead hovered over the fighting. A "jungle penetrator" – a folding seat on a cable – was lowered from a boom, and Kusiak strapped Zwit to it.
Because the helicopter was taking fire, no time could be spared hoisting the wounded man to the medic overhead. Instead, the pilot departed with Zwit dangling at the end of the cable.
"They dragged him through a whole bunch of trees," Kusiak recalled.
Zwit was taken to the field hospital in Da Nang. According to the official report, "SP4 James Zewit (sic) has multiple frag wounds to chest and is at 85th Evac. Doctors do not believe he will live."
He was one of 13 men wounded in the battle. Eight others were killed. Despite the dire prediction, Zwit did not add to that number.
"Randy never talks about what he did for me that night, but all of us that were there know what he did," Zwit later wrote.
ROAD TO FLORIDA
Following the war, Kusiak had a diverse career. He worked 25 years with the Chicago Board Options Exchange, after which he became a truck driver, the job that first brought him to Palm Coast. Making a delivery of railroad parts in 2005 to Flagler Beach, he crossed the State Road 100 bridge and saw before him the small seaside community and the vast ocean beyond.
"The weather's 72, the sky is beautiful. I called my wife up and said, 'You know what, honey? Instead of waiting for my load in Jacksonville, I think I'll wait here for a couple of days,'" he said.
Before long, he found himself house hunting and called his wife again, this time to tell her to sell their Arlington Heights, Illinois, home.
The couple moved to Palm Coast and had a good life, according to Kusiak. Sadly, Julie Kusiak was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in 2006. The couple had been married 42 years and had four sons.
Through the years, Kusiak kept in contact with Zwit. They attended each other's weddings and maintained a close friendship across the decades. Every five years, members of their platoon would meet for a reunion.
Zwit, a legal investigator, had the resources to locate people and put that to work finding the families of each of the men killed in the firefight of April 15, 1971. He made sure to visit them all.
He also became a popular speaker on the Vietnam War era with high school classes. Once, he did a presentation via Skype for a class in Chicago direct from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Other members of his platoon, Kusiak and the helicopter pilot who flew Zwit to safety, were there for the presentation.
Kusiak, who has a brother in New Jersey, also uses the fraternal title when referring to Zwit.
"He's my brother," he said. "He's like my second brother."
A WINNING ACCOUNT
In December, Zwit called Kusiak to tell him he intended to enter a contest sponsored by the Chicago Bears. The winner would receive two tickets to Super Bowl LII, air fare and three days' lodging.
Zwit had attended Super Bowl XXVI with his 13-year-old son, which was held in Minneapolis, oloike this year's game. Kusiak has never been to the big game.
To enter the contest, Zwit had to submit a 2,000-character essay on the person he wanted to go with him. He chose Kusiak and related how his friend had helped him in Vietnam.
Zwit wrote, "We became family as young combat infantrymen then and remain 'family' to this day." He also told how Kusiak was continuing to struggle with the loss of his wife.
"I believe that trip to the Super Bowl would be something that he would truly enjoy at this time and it would be another way for me to say 'thank you' once again," Zwit wrote.
He called Kusiak to ask if he'd serve as his "wing man" for the contest, but Kusiak didn't give it a lot of thought afterward.
"I haven't won anything in my life," he said, laughing, "except when I was a kid and I won some accordion lessons when the Beatles were getting popular. Accordions were on their way out."
When the Bears representative called Zwit to tell him that his essay had won, Zwit told the man to call Kusiak to deliver the good news. Then he waited to hear from his friend. And waited.
Finally, the representative called him back. Kusiak wasn't answering his phone.
As it turned out, the Palm Coast man had seen the area code and assumed it was a sales call.
That was, until Zwit called and told him he needed to stay by the phone.
Kusiak described his reaction to the news as "euphoric" – for himself, yes, but also for his best friend.
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