In Loving Memory of our best Friend
Freddy Daulton Breeland
May 5, 1949 - January 24, 1986
~ T-152-8 ~
Killed in a Single-Car Accident at the Young Age of 36
Naval Boot Camp
I first saw Freddy at the United States Naval Training Center in San Diego, California. As Fate would have it, we both entered the Navy on June 27, 1967. He was from Natchez, Mississippi and I from Coos Bay, Oregon. He was placed in Company 360 while I ended up in 361.
Freddy was just barely over 5' tall so he stuck out in a crowd. He had come from a heritage of men who were short in stature. Freddy's father and grandfather were 4' 11". Although short, they were sturdily framed. I would find out on more than one occasion how Freddy could handle himself. I am also rather short at 5' 6" so we almost saw eye to eye on all matters.
It took a while for Freddy and I to make acquaintances. We were both chosen by our company commanders to be "Right Guides". When marching in company strength the Right Guide controlled the pace of the entire company with his gait. I guess that shorter men were chosen so that the general stride would not be too long. I recall many taller men being mad at us for our shorter steps.
I do not recall exactly when Freddy and I met, but it was not too long after we began our Boot Camp training. We enjoyed chatting when we could because we both grew up as "country boys". I loved to listen to his stories about the South and I shared many tales of the Northwest with him.
Freddy and I not only entered the service on the same day, we also scored similarly on the battery of tests that were given to us and both ended up being chosen to be "Radiomen". After our Boot Camp graduation we attended "Basic Electricity and Electronics" school, which was our preparation for "Radioman A School". Then our next step was "International Morse Code School".
Towards the end of Radioman School it came time to fill out a request for orders to our next duty station. As lowly E-3 Seaman it was known that hardly anyone ever got chosen for what they put in for. I remember looking at the choices and dreaming of Rota, Spain and other exotic sounding places. Just then our instructor, whom most of us really liked, planted a seed in our minds about Radiomen being desperately needed on small river gunboats in Vietnam. He asked us to consider helping out the war effort by participating. I pondered what he said for a few short moments. Something welled up inside of me and I penciled in riverboats as my first choice. More than 16 years later I found out that Freddy had also volunteered for riverboat duty in Vietnam.
When the official orders arrived Freddy's and mine read "Republic of Vietnam". We heard our buddy, Bob Buchanan, groan as his echoed the same. The problem was, he hadn't volunteered. From the day we received those orders we had approximately 8 months of further training before we shipped out to Vietnam. It gave us a lot of time to think about where we were headed.
Our next duty station would be the "Naval Inshore Operations Training Center" in Vallejo, California. While there we trained on small boats in the Sacramento River Delta which was similar to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. We also traveled to Camp Roberts, California for gunnery training and to Whidbey Island, Washington for SERE training in survival. By the time we arrived in Vietnam we were well prepared to carry out the task set before us.
Our unit, River Assault Squadron 15, arrived in Vietnam on July 22, 1968. I was onboard boat T-152-1 and Freddy's boat was T-152-8. Our boats were Armored Troop Carriers (ATC) that were designed to ferry infantry troops around from one end of the Mekong Delta to the other. The ATC was 54' long and about 14' wide with a ramp on the bow for loading troops. Everyone was cross trained so that if one person was injured or killed, then another could replace him effectively. Freddy and I became .50 caliber Machinegunners since our boat radios were all voice activated.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. Our squadron endured extremely heavy combat on a rather consistent basis in the narrow rivers and canals. It was not uncommon for us to engage the enemy at point blank range. Our casualty rate remained high throughout our one year tour. Freddy was wounded on 2 occasions. I was spared physical wounds, but we all suffered mentally and emotionally. When our year was up we were glad to have made it and saddened for those who hadn't.
DEROS stands for "Date of Estimated Return from Overseas". It was finally our turn to DEROS. Freddy and I exchanged addresses and swore to one another that we would keep in touch. As with many guys, this did not last for long. Freddy put in for "Teletypewriter Repair School" and I chose not to as I heard that it could negate any possibility of shore duty. I was right. Freddy got orders to the USS Vesole while my orders were for the Naval Communications Station on Guam. I was thrilled that I would not have to go aboard a ship, but sorry that Freddy and I would have to part company.
We both went on a 30 day leave home and then reported to our duty stations. In order to officially get me from Vietnam and back to Guam the Navy decided to send me to "16MM Motion Picture Operator School" in San Diego, California. It was a 3 week school that would give me a little time to sort out my Vietnam experience. Wrong..! I was placed in a barracks with about 40 Vietnamese who were training here in the United States. Talk about added stress to an already stressed out sailor.
At that point Freddy and I lost contact with one another. Neither of us had permanent addresses for our next duty stations. Somehow the mail from our temporary addresses never got to one another. It would be many long years before I would hear my buddy's voice again.
The Navy was granting 3 month "Early Outs" on a regular basis in the early 1970's. I lived for the day I got my early out. Guam was tough on me following my tour in Vietnam. I was extremely rebellious and got into a lot of trouble. In retrospect, I can see now that I had "Post Traumatic Stress" from my combat traumas. Finally the orders came for my "Early Out". I was elated. I was discharged from active duty on March 10, 1971. Later I found out that Freddy got out on March 8th. Our naval enlistments ended up being almost identical.
Years of Searching
For years I thought about Freddy. Often I would go to the library and try to find his name in Mississippi phone directories to no avail. Little did I know that he was doing the same thing as he searched for me. The years passed one by one until they added up to 16.
One Sunday afternoon I made the right call. A man answered and I asked if he was Freddy Breeland. He said, "Yes, what do you want?". I said, "Were you in Vietnam on riverboats?" He said, "Yes, what do you want?" I replied with, "This is Mike Harris." There was a long silence. His wife later told me that she had walked into the house at that moment to see her husband weeping while holding the receiver. Little did they know that I was weeping on my end as well. We had a wonderful time of catching up and I began making plans to travel down to Mississippi from Oregon to be with my buddy again. Being a General Building Contractor allowed me to call my own "shots".
Freddy had instructed me to call him when I reached Natchez, Mississippi. He lived 20 miles out of town and wanted to give me further instructions. I was to drive north on Highway 61 until I came upon a Yazoo sign. He would be waiting there beside the road in his brown Ford pickup. My heart was racing knowing that I was so close to my buddy again. It was June 1985.
As I pulled off onto the shoulder of the road I saw Freddy climb out of his pickup. His face was taut and I recognized his short stature. I jumped out of my pickup and we gave each other a long embrace. What a joy it was to be back with someone that I cared for and trusted. One who had been through so many similar experience and could identify. He told me to follow him back to the house.
Freddy had chosen a spot of land way back in a "backwoods hollar". The house was on a little knoll overlooking a small valley. I was amazed with the sights and sounds of Mississippi. As I got out of my truck his wife and son were there to greet me. They had planned a 2 week trip to Tennessee so that Freddy and I could be alone together to reflect. His wife had made up a bunch of food for us to survive on while they were gone. They sure like to eat good down there in the South.
Freddy and I were like 2 chickens in a hen house. We had so much to share in so little time. We swayed in rocking chairs on his front porch and talked about our past, present and future. I discerned rather quickly that Freddy was suffering from "Post Traumatic Stress" from his experiences. I had done some studying and recognized many of the same symptoms in him that were in me. It was easy for me to see the pain through his joyful veneer.
I had loaded up my slide projector, screen and 500+ slides from Vietnam before I'd headed out from Oregon. Freddy had also taken many slides during our tour. When he arrived home he showed them to his family on one occasion and then told them to never ask to see them again. Years before he had entrusted the slides to the care of his Great Aunt Grace. She kept them stowed away in her closet. After much pleading from me, Freddy finally buckled and we viewed his slides along with mine. It was a time filled with mixed emotions. Images of Vietnam can upset many Vietnam veterans for days.
Freddy was proud to show me around his "stomping grounds". I found out that many critters were fond of people. Little Fire Ants that you could barely see carried a big wallop. There were snakes, mosquitoes, Brown Recluse, friendly snakes, Black Widows, chiggers, deadly snakes, etc. One day a storm blew in. I enjoy the storms in the Pacific NW. I started outside and Freddy told me not to go. I asked "Why?" He said, "Lightning". You see, it hits the ground often in the South and a person is an excellent target.
As it drew closer to the time that I had to leave it became more difficult for both of us. We tried to make light of it, but it was not easy. The morning I was packing to depart I turned to Freddy and saw the sunlight glistening off the tears that were welled up in his eyes. I attempted to blink my tears away as I tried to compose myself. Even though we knew that we would be getting back together again soon, it was still extremely difficult. Freddy had discussed with me how he was going to take the initiative to escort his family out to Oregon for a visit. We had already begun to make plans, but the future was too distant to bring joy to the fact that we had to separate once again. Freddy tried to talk me into staying a little while longer. I explained that I couldn't due to my commitments back home in my construction business. I had already set one project aside to journey down for the reunion.
I will never forget the hollow feeling that invaded me as I drove down Freddy's driveway. I really didn't want to leave, but I knew that I had to. When I reached Perry, Oklahoma that night I gave Freddy a call. He all but begged me to return. I came within an inch of being convinced, but knew that I had to stick with my plans to carry on with my life back in Oregon.
Phone Call and Letters
After I arrived home Freddy and I continued our newfound relationship via the telephone and letters. He would get on one phone and his wife would be on the other. Letters were easy for me, but more difficult for Freddy. I did get him to write a few though. The planning continued for he and his family to visit Oregon the following summer. We again had something to look forward to.
One morning I was awakened at 5:30 by a telephone call. I answered and heard his wife on the other end. I quickly joked with her about forgetting about the 2 hour time difference. Then I picked up on her tone of voice. Something was wrong. What she said next floored me. Freddy had been in a terrible car accident and he wasn't expected to live. He'd been flown to Jackson, MS in an attempt to save his life. At present he was in a coma. I assured her that I would do what I could. From a distance of 2,000 miles all I could do was pray for my buddy and his family.
Three days passed before I received the word that Freddy had passed away. Even though it was expected it was still difficult to handle. I felt great remorse for Freddy's wife and 13 year old son. They loved him so dearly and now he would no longer be with them. Words seemed so shallow. I began making plans to attend the funeral. The old Vietnam defensive attitude, "It don't mean nuthin", crept into my soul. A cloud of denial surrounded me as I faced yet another Vietnam casualty.
I flew down to attend the funeral. The South was hit by a bitter cold front. The space shuttle blew up the day of the funeral. It was 22 degrees at the gravesite with a strong wind which brought the wind chill factor way down. I chose to stand across from the casket to bid my buddy farewell. I'll never forget how cold his wife looked throughout the official ceremony. I do not know how the volunteer made it through "Taps", but he did an extremely commendable job considering the circumstances.
After the funeral I made my way back to Oregon with a void in my heart. Freddy had endured so much in Vietnam and the years that had followed. He was a wonderfully likeable man who could bless you with heavenly music from his harmonica. It was so very difficult to reason why he died so young.
Life Continues Onward
My loss was great, but I knew that Freddy's wife and son suffered profoundly. I tried to support them as best as I could through the mail and with telephone calls. Many times I would just listen to his wife as she attempted to deal with her own grief. It was not an easy task. The common thread of our faith in God was the strongest factor. While sitting with Freddy on his front porch one evening he had said, "God has brought us back together again for some reason." I agreed while not even beginning to understand what lie ahead of us.
Immediately following Freddy's death I was overwhelmed with a great desire to protect his wife and son. I knew that they were vulnerable, but I also remember feeling guilty about the feelings I was having. I fought them as best I could yet they would not depart. I prayed and asked God to take them away, but they remained. I felt as though I was a Medic or Corpsman attending to the wounded on a battlefield. My medical bag contained only Biblical scriptures as the only answer to the pain and suffering. I knew that I could not personally bring any solace into the situation. Jesus was our only hope.
As the months passed I began to have deeper feelings for Freddy's widow. I cannot tell you how many times I prayed to God to take them away. They remained. I resisted them yet they remained. As time went on I began to sense that the feelings may be mutual. One day I asked her if she and her son would like to travel out to Oregon for a visit like Freddy had planned. She quickly agreed and arrangements were made.
At the time I was living in my small camp trailer so Mom offered a place for them to stay in her home. It was a rather awkward time for all of us. I felt like I was in high school again attempting to ask a girl out on a date. I was 37 years old and had never married. She had been married to Freddy for 14 years and their only son was 13 years of age.
One day the three of us were going for a walk. As we left the house I mustered up enough courage to reach down and take Connie's hand. I can still recall the quick glance from Jason as he saw another man holding his Mother's hand. He was close to his Daddy so it must not have looked proper to him. I was praying and hoping that I was doing the right thing.
Yet by the grace of God . . .
Soon it was time for them to journey back to Mississippi. As I watched the plane disappear into the clouds I felt a sense of meaning. My great desire to protect my best friend's loved ones was taking a new course. A course that I had never expected. I reflected upon what Freddy had said to me on his porch that day and wondered.
Our relationship began to mature via the mail and telephone. I no longer felt guilty about what was happening because I could see the hand of God in the matter. It was so unique for us to be able to talk about our love for Freddy. I knew him before Connie did, but she was able to share him for many years. Our lives were turning into a novel before our eyes.
One day I was at the local library and got an urge to call Connie. We were chatting away when all of a sudden I asked her if she would marry me. She agreed and I was exhilarated. Although I knew that she was still grieving, I also knew that she had a renewed hope.
We enjoyed a simple wedding at Connie and Jason's home church in Natchez, Mississippi. Jason was skeptical and I can still say today that I do not blame him. No one is able to fill the shoes of your "Daddy". He is now 27 years old. We are still working on our relationship as adult men. I appreciate him dearly. He is so much like his "Daddy" in many ways. The grin, the countenance, his voice, etc. It has been an honor and a pleasure to help raise him.
As I write these words Connie and I are approaching our 14th wedding anniversary. I will be the first to admit that we have had many hurdles to leap over and stones to stumble on. Especially during our first couple of years. I truly believe that we would not have made it without God's marvelous grace. Jesus Christ has been the primary focus in our lives. He has been the Glue that has bonded us together. He has helped Jason become a solid Christian adult. We are so thankful for we could not have accomplished this on our own.
Our journey through life has taken us down many paths. Jason was able to travel to Egypt on a short-term mission trip when he was 15 years old. What an experience for him. Connie and I labored fulltime in the Seattle area with "Point Man International Ministries", a ministry to Vietnam veterans, for almost 2 years. From 1992 to 1997 we served as missionaries to communist Laos. During that time we participated in many short-term missions into Burma and Vietnam. We lived in Bangkok, Thailand for 3.5 years and Savannakhet, Laos for 1.5 years. Through it all we were spared from disease or serious injury. God's grace was sufficient for us then and still remains so today. We are blessed . . .