Leroy Bishop spent 20 years wondering what happened to his best buddy from 'Nam. At one point, Bishop heard John Farruggio had died.
His wondering ended this year when, using a new computer data base being compiled by the Veterans of the Vietnam War, Bishop learned his Army friend lived only six miles away in a Philadelphia suburb."We got a little bit heavier and a little bit grayer. He's still the same guy," said Bishop, a printer who lives in Levittown.
Find-A-Vet, as the program is called, allows veterans to look for those they knew in Vietnam, even if all they remember is a nickname or a military unit.
Michael Milne, executive director of the Veterans of the Vietnam War, said society's acceptance of Vietnam vets in the past few years has led to an increased number of veterans wanting to find lost acquaintances.
"It's a healing process," said Milne, who runs the national organization from his home just outside Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania.
Find-A-Vet has a computer data base with more than 3,000 names on it and can also search for names among the organization's 32,000 members, Milne said.
Veterans of the Vietnam War has tried to increase the size of the data base by putting fliers for the program in its newsletter and at Veterans Administration hospitals.
Only Vietnam veterans are allowed to use Find-A-Vet; and to ask for a search, vets must enter their biographical information into the system. A $1 donation is requested for each search.
If several people fit the description, the Veterans of the Vietnam War sends a list of names and addresses. If no one meets the description, they hold the request for three months and try it again.
More than 400 requests have been made since the service started in January, Milne said.
John Sepcoski Jr., coordinator for Find-A-Vet, said he hopes the program eventually will have 1 million names in the computer data base. A total of 2.6 million soldiers from all services were in Vietnam.
Bishop and Farruggio saw combat together in Vietnam's central highlands.
"We had so many good times and bad times," said Bishop, who tried over the years to find his friend but hadn't a clue as to his whereabouts until he asked for a search in the Find-A-Vet program. Last fall, he learned that Farruggio lived in nearby Newtown.
"I called him. I said, `Do you know who this is? It's Bish.' He just couldn't believe it was me," Bishop recalled.
When they got together, they first swapped humorous anecdotes, such as the time when Farruggio's rucksack caught in a tree during a firefight and he couldn't jump for cover.
Then, Bishop said, they talked about things he hadn't even discussed with his wife.
"You can't really talk about it to anybody unless they've been there," Bishop said, adding that he and Farruggio now get together every week or so.
Ronald Green, who runs a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Philadelphia, said a meeting between Vietnam buddies can help them psychologically.
"It can be positive, finally discarding the old emotional baggage," said Green, an Army veteran who served in West Germany.
"After 15 or 20 years, they start thinking about people who were instrumental in their survival," Green added.
Director Milne, who served as an Army Ranger in the Mekong Delta from 1967-69, had the idea for the program and enlisted the help of Sepcoski, who was a student at nearby King's College at the time.
Unlike World War II, Milne said, most soldiers in Vietnam were sent over as individuals for one-year enlistments.
"One of the things everybody failed to do was swap names, addresses and phone numbers. When you rotated out, you just rotated out," Milne said.
Milne, too, has been trying to find a lost friend, his first sergeant from Vietnam. "He was a hoot and holler. He was a confidant. He was a good friend," Milne said.
To contact the organization, write to: Veterans of Vietnam Inc., 2090 Bald Mountain Rd., Wilkes-Barre, PA 18702, or telephone (717) 825-7215.