MTPR

'I Found The Treasure When I Found You': 2 Veterans Rekindle Bond Forged By War

Nov 16, 2018
Originally published on November 26, 2018 8:43 am

John Nordeen and Kay Lee served in the same Army platoon during the Vietnam War.

Nordeen and Lee had very different personalities, but in the life-or-death setting of war, the two bonded. Nordeen, a soldier from Seattle, was one of the first people that Lee, a combat medic from San Francisco, talked to.

But after the war, they lost touch.

In 2015, after a years-long search by Nordeen, the veterans finally reconnected.

And last month, 50 years after leaving the military, Lee, now 73, and Nordeen, 71, sat down at StoryCorps to remember their time together in Vietnam.

"After one firefight, you came to me and you showed me a helmet with a bullet hole in it — and I can't believe that you're alive," Lee said. "All I can say was, 'John, I think you have a very hard head.' "

But some of their fellow soldiers had not been as fortunate during that battle, Nordeen recalls. "Our platoon went from like 29 guys to 10 guys in two days," he said. "So, the guys that were left, we had even stronger bonds because we had survived this together."

Those intense feelings of loss carried long-term effects for Nordeen. "When you lose friends, you develop a hard exterior and you don't want to make friends with anyone else," he said. "So I don't have a big circle of friends. I think that's just one of many hang ups I brought home with me."

For both veterans, returning home became a practice in forgetting. "When I got home, most of the time I tried to forget the whole experience and not think about it too much. And I didn't try to contact anyone because I'm not sure if you guys wanted to be contacted," Lee said.

Nordeen told Lee, "Like you, I just melted into the woodwork like a chameleon."

Once, when he was in San Francisco, Nordeen tried to find Lee. "I ripped a page out of the San Francisco phone book that's got all the Lees with the first initial K, and I started going through making phone calls," he said.

It was an ambitious approach, Nordeen admitted. "How many Lees do you think are out there?"

"A lot," Lee said with a laugh.

As it turned out, calling all of the "K. Lees" in the Bay Area wasn't such a bad idea. One of the people who answered Nordeen's call was so intrigued by his search for Kay that she joined him in his pursuit — and helped him track down his friend.

It took years to find him. "But I found my long-lost buddy," Nordeen said, "and it was just like we'd never been apart."

"John, we were so lucky," Lee said. "We survived Vietnam and we're still here."

They're also grateful for each other's friendship.

"It's hard to describe, but the friendship and the bond that you form during battle is different than most friendship," Lee said. "It's like family now, so I'm very grateful for your effort to find me."

Nordeen agrees. "Well, I feel like I'm a treasure hunter, and I found the treasure when I found you."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Jud Esty-Kendall with Grace Pauley.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it is time for StoryCorps on this Friday. Today, two Vietnam War veterans who lost touch after the war. Kay Lee was a combat medic from San Francisco. John Nordeen was a soldier from Seattle. They were both in their early 20s when they served together in the Army. Fifty years after leaving the military, they sat down for a StoryCorps to remember how they first met.

KAY LEE: You were one of the first person I talked to. And, you know, I'm from a very sheltered life. So I thought you were a little crazy.

JOHN NORDEEN: And that was part of how we survived.

LEE: After one firefight, he came to me and showed me a helmet with a bullet hole in it. And I can't believe that you're alive. All I can say was, John, I think you have a very hard head.

NORDEEN: Yeah, I remember that day. But that was a day where a lot of other guys weren't as lucky as me. Our platoon went from, like, 29 guys to 10 guys in two days. So the guys that were left, we had even stronger bonds 'cause we had survived this together.

And, you know, when you lose friends, you develop a hard exterior. And you don't want to make friends with anyone else. So I don't have a big circle of friends. I think that's just one of many hang-ups I brought home with me.

LEE: When I got home, most of the time I tried to forget the whole experience and not think about it too much. And I didn't try to contact anyone because I'm not sure you guys wanted to be contact.

NORDEEN: Yeah. Like you, I just melted into the woodwork like a chameleon. But I thought about you, Kay. And one time, I was down in San Francisco. And I ripped a page out of the San Francisco phonebook. It's got all the Lees with the first initial K. And I started going through, making phone calls. How many Lees do you think are out there?

LEE: A lot.

NORDEEN: Yeah. It took years to find you. But I found my long lost buddy. And it was just like we'd never been apart.

LEE: John, we were so lucky. We survived Vietnam, and we're still here.

NORDEEN: Yeah. I've learned from you how to try to stay calm at times, even when the world's exploding around you. And that's why your friendship means the world to me.

LEE: It's hard to describe the friendship and the bond that you form during battle. It's different than most friendship. It's like family now. I feel very grateful for your effort to find me.

NORDEEN: Well, I feel like I'm a treasure hunter. And I found the treasure when I found you.

GREENE: John Nordeen and Kay Lee at StoryCorps in San Francisco, 50 years after serving together in Vietnam. Hear more stories of people reuniting on the new season of the StoryCorps podcast, which you can find at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.