WEST POINT -- Three guys with gray hair, mottled skin and swelling waistlines looked at a picture of young, thin guys in military uniforms getting on an airplane.
"That's my Freedom Bird," said Chet Chambers, of Bloomington, Ill., who took the picture.
"I didn't get any pictures of that," said Bill Jarrett, of Greenbriar, Ark..
"I didn't care," said Tom Heavilin, of Gibson City, Ill. "Get me the hell out of there."
The year was 1970. The Freedom Bird in question was taking those three and others of the 3rd Platoon, Bravo Company, 14th Regiment, 25th Division of the United States Army home from combat in Vietnam. They'd invaded Cambodia, stomped the bush and watched a dozen or more buddies die.
They flew back, got off the plane and didn't see each other for 20 years.
"We just wanted to get home, get that uniform off, grow our hair . . . and get on with life," said Denny Larsen, in whose West Point garage the other three were looking at the picture.
Normal life eluded them. They had careers and families, but memories and post-traumatic stress disorder crept up. In 1990 they started gathering from around the country every two years to talk, to remember, to heal.
Saturday, 10 of them gathered at Larsen's house. "It's probably the best therapy you can get," Larsen said. "A combat vet understands, and we all heal ourselves through talking about it."
Outwardly, the gathering was a picnic. American flags lined the yard. The 10 Vietnam buddies and their families wore commemorative blue polo shirts. A few sat and played cribbage. Children and grandchildren played yard games.
But the war was there. Flags from Vietnam and their military units lined the garage. A small table draped with a POW flag commemorated the missing. A framed piece of paper bore rubbings from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., the names of four of the unit who died.
Chambers picked up the frame and pointed to one name: James Bishop. Next to the name was a picture of a smiling black soldier standing next to a Vietnamese child.
Chambers had been discussing race relations in Vietnam. Tensions in America were high during the war. Chambers said the talk reminded him that several years ago he looked up Bishop's older brother.
He just wanted to tell Bishop's brother that Bishop was not part of any of those tensions, just in case they wondered. "I didn't want the family thinking anything was different," he said.
The longest lingering damage from the war is PTSD, said Norm Tonjen, of Maumee, Ohio. He worked in the family business for 30 years and was fine, but when he retired and had more time to ponder, things cropped up.
Veterans Administration and religious programs help, he said, but sometimes alternative medicine helps as well.
For example, the group held a Native American healing ceremony on Saturday. George Amiotte, a South Dakota Ogalala Sioux and Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam, inducted them into a Native American warrior society.
The ceremony was brief, inducting the men into the Red Feather Combat Veterans Warrior Society. Amiotte said the ceremony acknowledges their roles as warriors and urges them to embrace what combat made them.
"Myself, there's not a week that goes by I don't get triggered (with PTSD) and I have to go through all that again," he told them. "But that's me realizing I have a responsibility."
They have responsibility too, he said, to take care of those coming back from war now, because trying to be "normal" won't work.
"You never will be because of what you have done, where you have been and what you have seen," he said.
They survived, "and the memories that torment us sometime? That's our education. We don't want our children to have to do that."