Mission to return keepsake reunites Vietnam soldiers

THIS JUST IN ...

November 20, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

TERRY LACY'S last day in Vietnam was Aug. 11, 1968. He'd made friends -- and lost them -- at places called Khe Sanh and Da Nang. Tom Coores, a fellow Marine sergeant, had been killed; Lacy was the one who had to remove a map and compass from the body. Stan Abel also had been killed; he was a corporal and squad leader.

And another chum, a corporal who went by "Ski," had had his left leg blown off; he'd given Lacy his engraved cigarette lighter a few hours before the North Vietnamese ambushed his squad.

"After Ski was wounded, I was made first platoon commander of A Company," Lacy recalls, 30 years later, from his home in Ohio. "Through the month of June we just went out on patrol and ran road sweeps. We had a few encounters with the [Viet Cong]. I got five Marine replacements and one Navy corpsman one day, and that night I put them back on a chopper dead."

Across a clearing one day in July, Viet Cong attacked his platoon. After a battle of nearly three hours, six of Lacy's men lay dead, seven wounded. More than 100 North Vietnamese soldiers had been killed. "After that," Lacy says, "we came off operation and they gave out medals, and the Marine Corps Band played."

After that, he went home.

He packed his Marine gear in a locker that had belonged to his father. Among the items was the cigarette lighter with the engraved "J" on it. Some day, he thought, he'd track down the Marine he'd known as "Ski" and give it back -- assuming, of course, that Ski was still alive.

As the helicopter took the wounded Cpl. John "Ski" Wielebski away in the early morning of May 23, 1968, no one at the base camp near Da Nang knew if he would survive. When Wielebski's mother in Milwaukee first received word, she was told that her son was not expected to live. A day or two later, the prognosis improved: John Wielebski would survive, but without his left leg. He was awarded a Silver Star for calling in support for his ambushed unit while severely wounded and under fire.

For Wielebski, the road home from war was long, and not as direct as Terry Lacy's. There were months in military wards -- more surgery, fittings for an artificial leg, therapy. There was a long, painful odyssey from wanting to die to wanting to live. There were hours of pondering bleak questions: Had Vietnam been worth the loss of his leg and, worse, the lives of so many young men with whom he'd served?

"The Pentagon Papers did it for me," Wielebski says today, 27 years after the release of the devastating report of American unwillingness and ill-preparedness to win in Vietnam. "After that, I could no longer support the war."

By then, he had put himself on a road to the future -- disabled but willing to walk forward.

He enrolled in night classes at Marquette University in Wisconsin. He stopped thinking about becoming a Roman Catholic priest -- as he had for so many years -- and got in line to become one. "It had been something I knew I was called to do," Wielebski says. "Even in Vietnam my friend, Clem Grassi, and I had talked about entering the seminary once we made it home safely." Grassi died in Vietnam.

While in college, Wielebski read an advertisement for men who felt called to the priesthood. It was a solicitation from the Trinitarians, a Catholic order with a community in Baltimore County. Wielebski visited at Easter, 1973. "I found them to be welcoming to my gifts and talents," he says, "and my disability played no part of our conversations."

He moved to Baltimore, joined the Trinitarian community, and attended St. Mary's Seminary. He taught religious education at Sacred Heart Church, Glyndon. He was ordained in 1978. Since then, he's served as chaplain of a federal prison in Illinois, opened a shelter for the homeless in South Baltimore, operated a youth retreat house for the Baltimore archdiocese, and served as pastor of a church in Western Maryland. He's back at Sacred Heart in Glyndon now, 51 years old, awaiting his next assignment, writing his memoirs.

About five years ago, Terry Lacy started looking for the wounded Marine corporal he knew only as Ski. He attended a Khe Sanh veterans reunion in Washington, but didn't find him. This summer, he checked a roster of Khe Sanh veterans on the Internet and spotted a name that ended with s-k-i, "Rev. John Wielebski." Could that be Ski, the guy who'd lent him a Zippo lighter in 1968? Could he be a priest?

Lacy posted an inquiry on a Vietnam veterans page on the World Wide Web: "John Wielebski, if you are out there I still have your cigarette lighter when you went out on ambush and got hit, and I never got a chance to give it back. If you are the one, give me a yell and it's yours again."

Soon Lacy obtained Wielebski's e-mail address.

"But I was afraid to contact him at first," he says. "I didn't know if he was 'Ski.' I didn't want to be disappointed. I didn't know if he wanted to hear from me."

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