Every Memorial Day.
Every Veterans Day.
Gary Putrino of Omaha sends flowers to one of the thousands of graves marked by white marble military headstones at Long Island National Cemetery in New York. He instructs the florist to address the card to “Brave friend.”
The name etched into the marker is William H. Parker, a Marine Corps lance corporal killed during the Vietnam War.
Halfway across the continent, a Creighton Prep student in Omaha receives a William Hill Parker Memorial Grant every year. Putrino funds the $2,000 award.
Putrino wasn't with Parker when he died, but he was with him when Parker was most alive.
Parker and Putrino were Marine recruits together in 1967. So were Carlton Andrew Frost, Chester Michael Rencevicz and Thomas Paul Sweeney.
The five graduated from boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina with orders to Vietnam. But first came infantry assault training at Camp Geiger in North Carolina and jungle warfare school at Camp Pendleton in California.
They shipped off together in January 1968. By August, Putrino was the lone survivor.
Putrino, now 65 and retired, grew up in Endwell, N.Y., a middle-class suburb of Binghamton. His father, a World War II Army veteran of the South Pacific, built houses. His mother was a homemaker and her husband's bookkeeper.
Putrino graduated from high school in 1966 and attended a year of Lea College in Albert Lea, Minn. He walked on to the football team and became a two-way starter.
“It was a total draft dodge,” he said.
But a year later, Putrino was a 20-year-old Marine enlistee. He joined on a Thursday in July 1967 and his bus arrived at the recruit training center at Parris Island, S.C., the following Tuesday morning.
That's where he met Parker, a short, tough, fun-loving 19-year-old from Rockville Center, N.Y., who sang like Marvin Gaye. Parker was black. Putrino was white. Both were Roman Catholic. They became fast friends.
Putrino first noticed Parker during a battalion field day. Parker won the pullup contest.
“He had immense shoulders,” Putrino said.
During boot camp, instructors periodically pulled Parker out of training. Parker later confided to Putrino that his mother was trying to get her only son out of the Marines. Parker stayed.
Despite trying to follow his father's advice to stay unknown during boot camp, Putrino graduated at the top of his platoon class. As Honor Man, he left boot camp as a private first-class and was a squad leader during infantry training.
Parker and Putrino wanted to travel home to New York together after infantry training, but the Marines couldn't find a dress uniform jacket to fit Parker.
One finally was found stored in the base laundry. It had belonged to a Marine killed in Vietnam.
“Bill looked at it and said, 'I'm not coming back.' ”
New Year's Eve 1967.
The five friends had 48-hour passes off base. They went to Disneyland.
At a motel across the street from the amusement park, they filled a bathtub with ice and beer and went out for a good time in civilian clothes — and Marine haircuts.
They rode roller coasters and drove bumper cars. They watched the audio-animatronic President Abraham Lincoln stand and give a five-minute speech.
They sat at a Western bar and viewed a mock gunfight. They checked out the “Alice in Wonderland” stage show. And they soaked up the midnight fireworks.
Putrino called his parents to wish them a happy New Year.
Disneyland was a weekend oasis from preparations for war.
During their last test in jungle warfare training, Parker and Putrino led an assault into a mock Vietnamese village. The “villagers” and “enemy” were Marines just back from Vietnam.
“Bill and I were squad leaders, walking abreast down a trail,” Putrino said. “To this day, I don't know where they were, but they opened up on us with M-16 blanks, and Bill and I got 'killed.' The muzzle flashes burned our uniforms.”
Putrino said Parker looked at him and said, “Man, it doesn't make any difference how good you are. It's just luck.”
A few days later, they flew to war.
They arrived in South Vietnam on Jan. 19, 1968, landing in Da Nang, a major U.S. war base, about 4 a.m.
Putrino was assigned to the 1st Marine Division military police unit. He tried several times to transfer to the field, particularly after four other Marines in his hooch were killed the opening night of the North Vietnamese army's Tet Offensive in late January 1968. He wanted to be part of the fight.
Finally in June, Putrino was transferred to Company E, First Reconnaissance Battalion, the elite Marine force that patrolled behind enemy lines. He reported to the unit's headquarters near Da Nang. First Sgt. Maurice Jacques, a veteran of WWII and the Korean War, sat behind the desk.
“A big guy with a tattoo. No shirt. 100 degrees.”
“I've transferred, sir.”
Jacques asked for Putrino's service record book. He noted Putrino was a boot camp Honor Man.
“You volunteer for this outfit?” he asked.
Yes, sir, Putrino said.
“Decent!” Jacques said.
One day at Phu Bai not long after arriving in Vietnam, Putrino walked past a formation of Marines just back from fighting at Hue.
“Gary! ... Gary! ... Putrino!”
Putrino stopped and turned. He didn't recognize the Marine. It was Rencevicz. Everything about him was different. His face had no emotion.
“Meeting someone you went through training with is like seeing your best friend,” Putrino said.
They later talked. Rencevicz shook badly.
“Hue was so bad,” he said. “We lost so many men.”
The last time Putrino saw Rencevicz in the rear near An Hoa, they agreed the war was worsening for the Americans.
Rencevicz said he was leaving the field and would be a supply officer.
“We talked about Parker and the other guys,” Putrino said. “It was always bittersweet.”
The next time Putrino went to Rencevicz's hooch, he knocked on the door.
“The guy got a pained look and asked if I was Rencevicz's buddy from recon. He told me Rencevicz was killed a week or two earlier.”
Rencevicz volunteered to tag along on a resupply mission to Marines in the field. A tree fell on him and broke his neck.
Sweeney was killed March 31, 1968, near Phu Bai in Thua Thien Province.
Frost was killed May 19, 1968, east of Con Thien Combat Base in Quang Tri Province. North Vietnamese army troops ambushed Frost's patrol. He destroyed an enemy machine gun emplacement but died of bullet wounds. He received a posthumous Silver Star.
Parker was killed June 6, 1968, at Landing Zone Loon in the rugged hills near the Laotian border.
Rencevicz was killed July 27, 1968, southeast of An Hoa in Thua Thien Province.
By June 1969, Putrino was on his second one-year tour and was a corporal.
He had participated in more than two dozen long-range reconnaissance patrols deep in enemy-controlled territory, plus Operations Mameluke Thrust and Taylor Common. He had been in the field leading his team — called Prime Cut — since January.
In July, Putrino came down with malaria. He had a high fever and anemic dysentery. Breathing was difficult. It felt like ants were eating his chest. He went to an aid station down the hill from First Recon headquarters.
The Navy doctor took a look at Putrino, then his service book. He set the book down and took off his reading glasses.
“You've been here for 19 months,” he said. “You want to go home?”
Yeah, the exhausted Putrino replied.
“You served all that time with those crazy bastards up the hill here?”
Most of it, Putrino replied.
The doctor said Putrino was too sick to fight. He told him to turn in his weapons and return at 5 a.m. the next day. He was going home.
The next day, Putrino was on a stretcher aboard a transport plane for a military hospital in Japan. Scores of wounded Marines stacked on stretchers filled the aircraft. A few died during the flight.
Putrino returned to America overwhelmed by the sadness of the war.
“But if I had a chance to start over, I'd do it again,” he said. “I saw so many brave and incredibly courageous things done.”
He earned a bachelor's degree in public administration from Mankato State in Minnesota. He later earned a master's in business and a bachelor's in nursing.
Six years ago, Putrino's son, George Faulconbridge, graduated from Creighton Prep and received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Putrino said he decided to use the money that would have paid for his son's college education and establish a scholarship for an African-American student in Parker's memory.
“He was just a really kind guy,” Putrino said of Parker. “We were so close. I'll never forget.”
When Putrino took his son to West Point in 2009, they stopped to visit Parker's grave for the first time.
“I have been incredibly lucky and blessed to live well and find love, a wife and children,” Putrino said. “I think of all my friends I lost. They never got that.”
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