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Memorial message opens door to comrade's last day

A Vietnam War veteran meets the family of his fallen leader after remembering him online

By Susan Olp

Bilings Gazette


BIG HORN, Mont. » On Nov. 5, 2002, Al "Zach" Zachary left a two-line message online at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall to honor a fallen comrade-in-arms.

<t-5>Zachary, an Army sergeant with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, served in 1968 in Vietnam under Capt. John R. Wiest, a native of Billings. Zachary, from Hansville, Wash., was 22 and Wiest was 28.

On Oct. 12 of that year, on Hill 975 in Binh Dinh Province, a sniper felled Wiest with one shot as he stood next to Zachary. Thirty-four years later Zachary wrote of his commanding officer: "I remember John on his last day, confident, compassionate and a fine leader. I served with John as a squad leader in the 173rd Airborne Brigade."

Little did Zachary know the impact his words would have nearly 10 years later on Wiest's family, or the closure it would bring him.

On Nov. 3, Zachary met with Wiest's daughter, his stepsister and other family members in Billings to fill in the gaps about Wiest's final day, and to visit his grave at the Custer National Cemetery at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. The gathering was both emotional and fulfilling for Zachary, Traci Wiest, stepsister Barb Walter, niece Nadine Bittner and the others.

Zachary, now 67, spent his life after the military as first a teacher and then a social worker. He lived in Hawaii until three years ago when he retired, and he now lives back home in Hansville. When he finished his two-year stint in the Army, he tucked away his memories of that horrific time, not willing to revisit them in his mind.

In 2002, when his then-neighbor, David, invited him to visit the virtual Vietnam wall online, Zachary balked, but said yes when the opportunity came up again. He asked David to type in Wiest's name, and then Zachary typed his thoughts.

"I was thinking maybe someday somebody will see this, but I didn't know how anybody would know to do that," he said, sitting in the lobby of the Clock Tower Inn in downtown Billings with Traci Wiest and the others.

Then in August, he got an email from Len Bittner, Wiest's nephew. Zachary almost deleted the email because it wound up in the spam folder. But just before he pressed the "delete" key, he noticed the words "John Wiest" in the subject line.

Bittner, like Traci Wiest and the rest of the family, knew little about what happened to John Wiest the day he died. They only knew he had been shot by a sniper, and Bittner asked Zachary if he could share more of his memories of that time.

Reluctant at first to think about that painful time, Zachary agreed to share what he knew. It started what became for him an emotional release as more memories came back.

After a flurry of emails between the two, as well as emails with other family members, Zachary agreed to a face-to-face visit with the family. He had already planned to visit Billings, to see Sandra Brek, his girlfriend from Harlowton.

Zachary spent nearly an hour sharing his thoughts about Wiest, and he recounted the fallen soldier's last hours. He spoke of Wiest's compassion, even toward the people he faced in combat.

"John had no hatred for the enemy," Zachary said. "A lot of us did. I guess I was one of them. But it didn't do any good. It didn't help matters. It didn't make you fight any harder. It was just something else you had to deal with."

ONE TIME when Zachary came back from R&R, he brought a bottle of whiskey for Wiest. Wiest immediately opened it and shared it with all of his men. He shared easily whatever he had with others, including his food, Zachary said.

As Zachary spoke, Traci Wiest, who was only 4 when her father died, pulled out some keepsakes from his life — a lighter, a watch, his jump wings, still in the box they came in. Wiest handed them to Zachary.

"These are not easy to get," Zachary told her of the jump wings. "They don't just hand those out to anybody who wants them."

John Wiest, who spent 12 years in the Army, was on his second tour of duty of Vietnam in October 1968. He'd already served in the 82nd Airborne and the 101th Airborne.

The 173rd was a high-casualty unit, Zachary told the family. By the second half of his tour of duty, Zachary said he had stopped making friends "because life was pretty short-lived over there," he said. "When you're in a line platoon, you know your chances of coming home alive were not too good."

The 173rd was the smallest American unit in Vietnam, he said. On Oct. 12, 1968, in Binh Dinh Province, Zachary and Wiest knew the platoon would have to take a nearby hilltop to survive.

They were surrounded on all sides by the North Vietnamese and if they were going to live another day, they had to claim a hill of their own. Rain was pouring down.

"We were trying to come up with a plan to do that," he said. "I was platoon sergeant at the time and I was standing right next to John. We were whispering when the shot rang out."

The gunshot sparked confusion, Zachary said. It was a few moments before he realized that Wiest had been fatally wounded.

"I opened his fatigues shirt and it was a clean shot right through the heart," he said. "He probably knew what hit him for a fraction of a second, but I know with those types of hits there's no pain."

Tracy Wiest thanked Zachary for recounting the events as they unfolded.

"I'm so glad you told me," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "We never knew what happened."

The 173rd never left anyone behind, Zachary said. So the unit wrapped up Wiest's body and took it along as they tried to connect with a helicopter to evacuate him from the thick of the fight. A couple of weeks later, the unit finally was able to signal a Huey to land and collect Wiest's body and drop off needed food, ammunition and medicine.

It happened as a firefight raged all around, and the chopper swooped down and lifted up in about a minute. The weather was such that Zachary couldn't see the Huey once it took off, and then he heard an aerial explosion.

"We didn't know at that time what got hit," he said. "I didn't know if John had made it home."

It was only when he started corresponding with Wiest's family that he discovered that Wiest's body indeed had been returned to Montana and buried in the spot the soldier had requested as his final resting place.

Zachary and the family drove out to the cemetery to visit the gravesite, marked by one of thousands of white headstones. Reading it, Zachary noted that Wiest had been awarded two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.

As he stood there, Zachary said he had worried that he might be overcome, seeing Zachary's gravesite. But instead, he found peace.

"After all these years wondering about it, now I know he made it home," he said.

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