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Vigil From Shell-Pocked Hill : Vietnam Widow Sifts Remnants of a 'Lost Camelot,' Asks Why

February 07, 1988|DAVE CARPENTER | Associated Press

OAKLAND — Twenty years after Capt. James (Eddie) Reed fell victim to mortar fire in the Mekong Delta, his widow continues to be haunted by the circumstances surrounding his death.

Brenda Reed Sutton, who "never really healed" from the loss of her hometown sweetheart in the Tet offensive, set out a year ago to reconcile herself to it after years devoted to career and family.

She decided last year, after the anniversary of her husband's death on Feb. 1, 1968, to write a book telling the widow's story. It was to be dedicated to all the women like herself who had their young marriages "ripped out of our lives," who "lost Camelot."

Some Questions Answered

An emotional trip to Vietnam with her 23-year-old son last fall answered some questions. They visited poor but friendly villages, were struck by the flatness of the delta that Capt. Reed and his men had marched across--"They were sitting ducks"--and saw the sun setting over rice paddies just as he had written.

A week after her return, a man who had been wearing a bracelet with her husband's name on it (he was briefly listed as missing in action) for 19 years called Sutton to send it to her.

"It was kind of like Eddie got his message home to me somehow," she said.

But the jolting impact of a discovery made while researching military documents in Washington last June has shattered any peace of mind that might have been gained through the trip.

What she saw was the commanding officer's log report, newly declassified, from the day of the fatal mortar attack. It said, simply, "Possible short round" in discussing what killed Reed and three of his lieutenants as they sat atop an old French fort determining where to redirect fire at the Viet Cong.

In other words, contrary to the official Army version, the deaths may have resulted from "friendly fire"--one of their own shells that fell short.

The report "absolutely blew my mind," Sutton recalled in a recent interview at her well-appointed home in Oakland. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing."

When her Vietnam nightmare began two decades ago, the then-21-year-old housewife from Kingsport, Tenn., found it difficult to accept her husband's death.

Reed was listed as missing for eight days, and it took a month before his body was returned home. Because of the mortar's devastation, his widow was never allowed to view his remains, which she cites as contributing to the difficulty she found in coming to terms with his death.

Eventually she remarried (and later divorced) and worked as a fashion model, secretary and, currently, real estate marketing specialist. But always there was the unresolved role of Vietnam soldier's widow.

'Tried to Put It Aside'

"I tried to put it aside and not think about things. Then about a year ago I realized it really had not been put to bed," said Sutton, who has recently become a motivational speaker on Vietnam-related issues.

Last summer, with the added incentive of trying to learn the truth behind the shocking log entry, she began interviewing the men in Reed's company in the 9th Infantry Division.

Their accounts were inconclusive, and last November Sutton went to Vietnam, taking along $30,000 worth of surgical equipment donated by suppliers.

There was, she recalls, a "raw emotionalism" to the two-week visit.

"My stomach churned as we landed on the same airfield Eddie had in 1968," she wrote afterward of the arrival at an airport riddled with bomb craters, bunkers and rusty helicopters from the war years.

A visit to the concrete fortress, "Ft. Courage," where her husband died, 20 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), proved to be impossible because of the bureaucratic intransigence of Vietnamese officials. But she got close enough to envision it.

For years, she says in her yet unpublished account, she "had been haunted by recurring nightmares and questions. I had often wondered what had become of the villagers in Rach Kien whom Reed had described in his first letters home from the war.

The journey provided touching moments.

Donation of the medical supplies to an under-funded hospital in Ho Chi Minh City brought tears to the director's eyes.

Sutton and her son, James, drank tea another day in the wooden stilt house of a kind Mwong village chief who had lost two brothers in the war.

Sense of Bitterness

But the lingering impression was one of sadness and bitterness at the deprivation, bureaucratic corruption and government propaganda they encountered.

"Eddie died believing that he was fighting for freedom. His beliefs were noble and correct. I found a country with few freedoms," she wrote.

Sutton had long dreamed of visiting the fort, which her husband described as a peaceful place. "He used to go to the top of the fort and swap stories and feel safe there."

But far more important to her now is seeing the inspector general's report on the deaths.

After spending months tracking down Reed's men--the commanding officer that day has since died--she learned from a lieutenant who was injured in the attack that an investigation had been conducted. Efforts to gain access to it through the Freedom of Information Act have so far been unsuccessful.

Until that happens, there can be no conclusive finish to her book, tentatively titled "Silent Partner: A Vietnam Widow's Story."

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