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DRUMMER FEATURE NOVEMBER 12, 2017

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Army buddies reunite after 49 years

They had not seen each other since one was wounded in Vietnam and taken by helicopter to Saigon

By Ed DuBois

Forty-nine years had passed since Army buddies Leon Trigg of Minnesota and Billie Wade of Tennessee were together in Vietnam.  Leon was wounded during a firefight.  He was hit five times by bullets from an assault rifle.  Billie helped save his buddy and got him onboard a helicopter.  That was the last time they saw each other until last September at the VA health care facility in St. Cloud.

"Leon, we made it!  We made it!" Billie said with a big smile.

"Yeah, I guess we did," Leon replied.

Both friendly and outgoing individuals, Leon and Billie were immediate friends when they met during basic training at Fort Campbell, Ky.  They moved on together to advanced infantry training at Fort Lewis, Wash., and they completed jump school (airborne training) together at Fort Benning, Ga.

Leon is white, and Billie is black.  Their shared likeability, and their fondness for joking around easily crossed the racial boundary.  In fact, they celebrated their ancestral differences.

"Send in the black man and the Indian," they would say.  (Leon has some Cherokee in his ancestry.)

 

Fought together in Bong Son

Leon was a gunner with an M60 machinegun, and Billie was often at his side with the ammunition for the weapon.

Leon's wife, Leslie Trigg, said they served with the 173rd Airborne Division, which was nicknamed "The Herd."  They arrived in Bong Son, Vietnam in September 1967 and fought together until Feb. 17, 1968, when Leon was wounded.

Leon told Leslie the wounds felt like they burned.  He was hit after the unit had settled down for lunch during a lull in the fighting.  He was standing up when suddenly a new firefight started.  A burst of assault rifle fire hit him in the hip area and legs.

Once he was aboard a helicopter, Leon was taken to Saigon.  He eventually was taken back to the U.S., where he recovered in a Denver military hospital, Fitzsimons Army Medical Center.

"He still has one of the bullets that was taken out of him," Leslie said.

Leon was on a one-month leave after getting out of the hospital.  He finished his military service at Fort Bragg, N.C. and was honorably discharged in April 1970.

 

Married in 1972

A Big Lake High School graduate, Leon worked in construction and as a machinist before he was drafted into the military in April 1968.

Leslie said she met Leon at a party in Rockford.  Leslie had grown up in Buffalo, where her mom and dad owned a business, the City Bakery, which was located on 1st Ave. NE at the current site of the Hot Wok restaurant.  They lived upstairs in an apartment.  When the Holmquist's supermarket opened in what is now the Lakeview Mall, a deal was worked out to set up a bakery inside the grocery store, and Leslie's parents, Les and Ruth Bakke, were the bakery managers.

Leon and Leslie were married in 1972 and lived in Buffalo for over 30 years.  Leslie said Leon worked as a machinist and a welder through most of their years together.  They have three children, two sons and a daughter.  One of the sons, Eric, served in the Navy four years and lives in San Diego.  Interestingly, Eric was born on Feb. 17, which is the same date on which Leon was wounded five years earlier.

Leon and Leslie's daughter, Tarra, was a New Year's baby.  She lives in Buffalo.  Her brother, Shane, also lives in Buffalo and has a personality like his dad.

 

Suffered a stroke in 2004

Leon, who is now 71, loved fishing.

"He was known for his fish fries," Leslie said.

Sadly, Leon suffered a massive stroke in 2004.  Leslie said he has been suffering from seizures and is disabled by dementia.  He has been living at the VA in St. Cloud just over a year.  Leslie drives up and visits Leon often.

Last spring, Leslie received a call from a veteran who had served with Leon and Billie.  The caller lives in Missouri, and he and Leslie exchanged phone numbers.

"Soon I received a call from Billie," Leslie said.  "We conversed on Facebook for a while, and then Billie said he wanted to come and see Leon."

"He wanted to come before winter because he was unsure if he could drive on Minnesota's roads in the wintertime," she added with a smile.  "He drove 900 miles to see his Army buddy."

"They are both such lovely people," Leslie also said.  "It had been 49 years since they saw each other."

 

Two days in September

Billie showed genuine care and concern for Leon when they met.

"He was so gentle with Leon," Leslie said.  "He even wiped some drool from Leon's chin as they talked.

Billie visited Leon on both Sunday and Monday, Sept. 10 and 11.

"They didn't want to say goodbye," Leslie recalled.  "When it was time for Billie to go, Leon said, 'Billie, drop and give me 20!'  Billie smiled and did 6 pushups."

"They just laughed," Leslie continued.  "Billie said, 'That's all I can give you, Leon.'"

 

Before computers and Internet

Leslie said Leon had tried over the years to look for Billie.

"That was before computers and the Internet, and it was before his stroke," she explained.

When their long-awaited reunion finally happened, Leslie contacted the Journal-Press.

"This was like a Hallmark movie.  I wanted to share it," she said with a few tears forming.

She learned Billie had done factory work for a few months after getting out of the Army.  He then returned to the service and made the rank of major in the Reserves.

While meeting with Leon, Billie took out a map of Vietnam, and they circled the places where they served.  They recalled doing some hunting in Vietnam when they had a chance, and shared a memory involving a wild boar.

They also shared some family pictures.

"They kept looking at each other like 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe it,'" Leslie said.

 

Buddy Billie D. Wade

During a walk outside, Billie asked Leslie if he could push Leon's wheelchair.

"You take some R&R.  Let me push my buddy," Billie said.

Leslie remembered Leon talking about Billie over the years.

"I heard about Billie D. Wade all the time," she commented.

As Leon and Billie spent time together in September, it was fortunate that Leon can still remember things that happened before his stroke.

Forty-nine years had passed since they were in Vietnam together, but they picked up where they left off.

"They have similar happy-go-lucky personalities," Leslie said.

"Leon, we made it!  We made it!" Billie said with a big smile.

"Yeah, I guess we did," Leon replied.


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