PRYORSBURG (AP) — Few things strengthen friendship like war.
Vietnam veterans David Freeze of Pryorsburg and Ken Barnell of Sierra Vista, Arizona, reunited last Monday for a four-day visit to remember the five months that forged their bond overseas.
The meeting at Freeze’s home was their first contact in 44 years.
Barnell was in his third tour in the Marine Corps when he met Freeze in 1972.
The duo, both in their early 20s, were “gas men.” Their jobs centered on refueling helicopters and managing incoming fuel in Vietnam. The two instantly felt a kinship.
“After 21 years in the military, I never made a better friend,” said Barnell, 67. “That was just how it was supposed to be, and I don’t know how else to explain it.”
Freeze, 68, agreed. “It started from day one when we met at that landing strip,” he said. “It’s not something we thought about at the time, but it’s a friendship you have only once in a lifetime.”
The two men found it difficult to find one another again after the war, due to distance and Freeze leaving Vietnam a week before Barnell.
It was decades later when Freeze’s home health nurse, Julie Purcell, finally reconnected them on Facebook.
For the last two years, Freeze has battled an advanced lung disease — partly due to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
As his health worsened, Purcell worked with her patient to complete a “bucket list” while he still had time.
One night when she asked if there was anyone Freeze missed, he spoke Barnell’s name without hesitation.
Purcell then found Barnell on Facebook, prompting the emotional reunion.
“After 44 years, our first phone conversation lasted two minutes,” Freeze said. “I just couldn’t talk. He couldn’t either.”
Differences exist between the two, Barnell said — comparing his more urban upbringing to Freeze’s rural childhood in Kentucky — but none of that mattered in their months together in Vietnam.
As they both recalled being shot at by South Vietnamese soldiers, they said the fear they felt was the same. When dangerous situations challenged their resolve, the two men said they reminded one another of why they served.
“We were doing our jobs,” Freeze said. “We were supposed to be there.”
Barnell said: “I felt 100 percent in what we were doing, and I wanted to be with men like (Freeze) who I knew I could count on. My job wasn’t to ask why — my job was to do or die.”
Outside of the military, both veterans struggled with adjusting to civilian life.
Barnell said he once spent 14 months as a civilian before returning to service, while Freeze worked as a welder before eventually feeling aimless and “bouncing from one job to another.”
The contrast in lifestyles further distanced the two from reconnecting, they said.
“We were sent home and turned loose to survive the best way we could,” Freeze said. “You can’t live like that, then come home and everything be fine.”
Barnell agreed. “Outside of the military, I didn’t get along with many people,” he said. “(People) didn’t have the respect for one another that I was used to. In the military you had each other’s back — you took care of each other.”
Now the two of them are making up for lost time. They have a second visit planned for May.
Since first speaking with Barnell again, Freeze’s health has improved, Purcell said.
“I’m going to live long enough to visit his home,” Freeze said. “Just seeing him again has improved my health.”
Barnell added, “I found my brother after 44 years.”