Marines reunite after 50 years
By MATTHEW MEDSGER | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: September 9, 2017
TARENTUM, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — This is a story about how friends become family.
For some, June 1967 was the start of the Summer of Love, a time when more than 100,000 gathered in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to follow Timothy Leary's directions and "turn on, tune in, drop out."
For others, that June came to be known as the start of the "long hot summer," when 159 riots centered around the civil rights movement broke out across the country, landing over 11,000 people in jail and resulting in the deaths of over 75 people.
For the nearly 3.4 million military men and women on active duty, the summer of 1967 was and could be only one thing: the height of the Vietnam War.
But for five young men from the Alle-Kiski Valley, that summer was the start of a lifelong, unbreakable bond of friendship.
One for all, all for one
Dave Hertz was 18, and it was the summer after high school.
He was walking down Corbet Street in Tarentum on an otherwise normal day. Four of his friends drove by on their way to New Kensington.
"They saw me and said, 'Hey, you want to go with us?' I asked where they were going and they said, 'We're going to join the Marine Corps.' I got in the car and went with them," Hertz said.
In that car were two cousins, Jerry and Len Valenti, now 68 and 67, respectively, Larry Struhar, 67, and Ted Slavin, 69.
Jerry Valenti, had wanted to join the service a year earlier when he graduated from Har-Brack High School in 1966. But his cousin Len was only 16 so he couldn't sign up with him. He waited for one more year.
"Me and him were going, regardless," Jerry Valenti said.
When the time came they picked up Struhar, who had convinced Slavin to come along.
Once Hertz jumped in the car, the five were off to the recruiter.
"I don't even think I thought about it," Hertz said.
All five just wanted one thing: to fight for their country.
The five spent the rest of the summer waiting for that moment, on Aug. 22, when they were to report for duty.
"The recruiter, he took us to the airport and we were gone," Jerry Valenti said.
Honor, courage, commitment
Instead of training at Parris Island in South Carolina, the five ended up going through Chicago and then to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.
Joined with 67 other would-be Marines, the five were split into squads and eventually into job specialties.
Jerry Valenti said he was a "grunt," while Len Valenti learned tanks. Struhar and Slavin were radio operators before Slavin learned reconnaissance. Hertz was a radar man.
They didn't know it, but the Tet Offensive, one of the largest North Vietnamese offensives of the war, was to begin in late January 1968 — just as they finished their training.
Both Valenti cousins, Struhar and Slavin would soon find out firsthand after they were ordered to deploy for 13 months as part of the 3rd Marine Division. Hertz was never assigned to duty in Vietnam.
Jerry Valenti volunteered to serve an additional tour after his first 13-month tour.
Struhar was injured by shrapnel, Slavin shot in the arm; both were awarded Purple Hearts for their injuries.
"I was laying down with the bullets flying all around and one caught my arm," Slavin said as-a-matter-of-factly.
Struhar's explanation of his war wounds was that, "some little (expletive) threw a hand grenade at me."
They would run into each other occasionally and under unusual circumstances as the war carried on, only to part again, often with tears in their eyes. They each served one enlistment and each was made a sergeant.
But from that point on, their lives went in five relatively different directions.
Semper Fidelis: 'Always faithful'
Len Valenti would return to the Alle-Kiski Valley and teach special education at Freeport High School for 35 years; his cousin Jerry worked the mills at Allegheny Ludlum for 33 years and then retired in Harrison.
Struhar was a mail carrier, also retiring in Harrison.
Slavin worked his way up to be a general manager of a small manufacturing firm and is now retired in Venice, Fla.
Hertz moved to Winter Garden, Fla., and became an engineer with a telephone company.
They all raised families, some married and divorced, and, according to Len Valenti, were "semi-normal — except we were all dumb enough to join the Marine Corps."
The five men wouldn't see each much until 50 years later, when the Tarentum High Class of 1967 held its 50th reunion. Several days later, on the anniversary of the day they all left home together came, they were finally reunited on Aug. 22.
Despite the decades that have passed, all five of men agreed that they were not friends, but family.
"I want to tell you: we were here Tuesday and we were a little inebriated, and the true feeling of all of us came out: I love these guys. I mean, I love them to death. We all had tears in our eyes the other day.
"We all made it back alive," Struhar said.
According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 47,378 American soldiers died in combat in the Vietnam War.
Another 10,800 troops died "non-hostile" deaths.
"The odds were against us — we shouldn't have made it back. It feels like we've all been together forever. I don't think any of us ever left each other in 50 years in our minds," Len Valenti said.
Jerry Valenti said the bond the five of them formed is "unique to the Marine Corps."
Hertz said, that despite not seeing the men for most of 50 years, they were all, always, just a phone call away.
"I tell you what: if anyone of these guys would have called me in the last 50 years, literally for anything, I would have stopped what I was doing and would have gone to anyone of these guys," Hertz said. "I couldn't say that about my brother, or my sister, but these guys, I still have their backs."
When asked if they would hold another reunion soon, the five agreed not to wait another 50 years.
Vietnam War by the numbers
- 9.087 million: Active duty military personnel during the Vietnam Era, Aug. 5, 1964 to May 7, 1975.
- 3.4 million: Troops served in Southeast Asian theaters: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand-based flight crews, and sailors in the South China Sea. Of those, 514,000 offshore personnel.
- 2.6 million: Troops who served in South Vietnam between Jan. 1, 1965 and March 28, 1973. Another 50,000 men served there between 1960 and 1964.
- 1 million-1.6 million: Troops that fought in combat, provided close support or were regularly exposed to enemy attack.
- 543,482: Peak troop strength in Vietnam on April 30, 1968
- 47,378: Troops who died in combat. Another 10,800 troops died "non-hostile" deaths.
- 7,484: Women who served in Vietnam,84 percent of whom were nurses.
- 9.7 percent: Vietnam vets makeup of their generation.
Source: Veterans of Foreign Wars
Information from: Tribune-Review