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Vietnam buddies reunite



Published: Fri, September 20, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Now grandfathers, the two men found they havea lot in common.

By MARALINE KUBIK

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

AUSTINTOWN -- Blood is the tie that binds family members together, but war transforms strangers into brothers.

At least that's how it worked for Jerry Wix of Austintown and Phil Forst of Minnesota.

Both men were barely out of high school when they met in April 1969 in Phu Bai, Vietnam. The experiences they shared over the next eight months bound them together closer than family.

The day they met, Wix and Forst were both assigned perimeter guard duty. Their units had just been combined, so they'd never seen each other before.

Over the next several hours the men patrolled the perimeter of their camp and traded stories. They discovered they had a lot in common. Both were newly married. Both were expecting their first child.

"And we both liked to drink a lot of cold beer -- if we could get ice," Forst added, trying to lighten the mood as he and Wix reminisced about their eight months together in Vietnam.

After leaving Vietnam -- Wix left Dec. 23, 1969; Forst left April 21, 1970 -- the two exchanged Christmas cards but lost touch within a few years.

In the mid-1980s, Forst, who was working as a truck driver, passed through the Youngstown area and telephoned Wix. Unfortunately, their pressing schedules prevented them from getting together.

Last year, Forst called Wix again.

Afterward, Wix started a letter to his old friend but never finished it. By chance, a family member dropped the incomplete letter in the mail and it found its way into Forst's hands.

About that time, Forst was planning a trip to reconnect with the survivors of a war that still haunts him.

Forst suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has been disabled since 1998.

He called Wix and the two planned to spend almost a week together.

Common ground

Amazingly, the two men -- both grandfathers now -- still have a lot in common.

Both ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles: Wix has a 1993 Heritage Soft Tail; Forst has a 1991 Soft Tail Custom. Both drive white 1997 Chevy GMC pickup trucks. Both wear earrings in their left ears and black skull caps.

Both are graying and sport beards and mustaches -- Forst's beard is longer, bushier and covers more of his face; Wix sports a neatly trimmed goatee.

Both have tattoos on each of their upper arms and smaller tattoos on their forearms. The small tattoos are souvenirs from Vietnam, Forst noted.

On the day The Vindicator visited, both were wearing veteran's T-shirts. Wix's was black with a missing-in-action logo; Forst's was gray with the slogan, "If you love your freedom, thank a vet."

"I never imagined I'd be riding a Harley alongside Jerry Wix," Forst said, flashing a wide smile at his friend. "If someone had told me, I wouldn't have believed it."

Wix, who has worked at General Motors' Lordstown assembly plant 32 years, took Forst on a riding tour of Youngstown and the area's Harley-Davidson dealerships. They also shared home-cooked meals and spent hours going through photo albums.

Old photos

Thumbing through black and white photos taken in Vietnam, the two came across one of them together, arms around each other's shoulders.

The pictures don't trigger flashbacks exactly, Forst said. "But all those memories flow right through. It all comes back. We went through some pretty trying times over there, but we had some good times too."

"The first thing I said to him when he pulled in my driveway was, 'Welcome home, brother,'" Wix said. "That's one thing nobody says to Vietnam vets. We never had a welcome home."

Although the men feel a connection with all Vietnam veterans, they said the bond they have with each other is strongest because they were there together.

Today, the two share more than decades-old memories. They also share stories of their lives since the war.

Wix has four children and 11 grandchildren.

"I got to meet Jerry's two sons and that was a real thrill," Forst said.

Forst has one daughter and three grandchildren.

After visiting with Wix, Forst was headed to West Virginia to reconnect with another man from their unit.

In Vietnam, Wix and Forst were in the 596 Maintenance Company, a 180-man unit that provided support services to troops.

"We were the best supporting the rest," Forst said, putting his arm around his friend.

kubik@vindy.com




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