“We needed each other then, we need each other now”
A mortar specialist in the U.S. Army’s 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Warren R. Neill Jr. arrived in Vietnam in December of 1966. He first saw combat in Operations Cedar Falls, Gadsden and Junction City. In April 1967 he moved with the brigade to Chu Lai and points north. The fighting ranged from fierce to dead quiet, and changed back in an instant: scenes repeated countless times in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“I was on the radio as our chopper was coming in at Junction City” Neill recalled. “First they said the LZ was cold and a go, then they said hot. We came in anyway, scattering into a perimeter of dodging mortars shells and small arms fire everywhere, an ambush, chaos. Then it was over.”
The 196th operated much of the time on its own, not directly under the umbrella of a division, and stayed forward deployed in the field during Neill’s service in Vietnam. The brigade was originally comprised of a squadron of armored cavalry, three infantry battalions, a support battalion and an artillery battalion. Numerous other units were assigned or attached in Vietnam.
“Most all of us saw combat, but not every day. The challenge with Vietnam, and probably in any jungle, was you rarely knew or saw when or where it was coming from,” said Neill, 67. “You could go for a couple days with nothing and then 10 minutes of unbelievable violence, mayhem and carnage, not constant combat, but a constant threat of ambush. With the jungle, tunnels, booby traps and uncertainty, we were on edge all the time. We were never really at a place where you could relax except for R and R. We’re all a team and had each others’ backs.”
Neill received the Combat Infantry Badge, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and numerous other decorations. After Vietnam, he was assigned to the 2nd Armored Division in Ft. Hood, Texas. Subsequent active duty assignments included Germany and finally as a disbursing officer in Ft. Dix, New Jersey where he retired from active duty as a MSG in 1988. Neill then enlisted and served 4 years as a Battalion Command Sergeant Major (CSM) in the Indiana Guard Reserve. He returned to the Army as a civilian employee, and retired as a Financial Management Analyst in 2011.
Not long before leaving active duty, Neill had an encounter that reconnected him with the 196th and changed his life: courtesy a tip of the hat. “I went to the New Jersey State Fair and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a guy wearing a 196th hat. I hadn’t seen the 196th patch in years. He leaned over, shook my hand and said ‘Welcome Home Brother!’ I’ve never forgotten how it made me feel. I learned about the 196th Light Infantry Brigade Association, went to the very next reunion, Cincinnati 1987, and haven’t missed but one, Boston 1989, since. I found the men I trusted with my life, and was again truly surrounded by a band of brothers.”
Neill served as vice president of the association from 1995 to 2001 and as president until 2013; today he is the secretary. “I’m devoted to bringing all of us back together – for the fellowship and to talk about things that only we know and feel,” he said. “We all have PTSD to some degree and a lot of healing goes on.”
With about 450 veterans, the 196th is one of largest military reunion associations in the country. The biennial gatherings draw about a thousand people with family and friends. For years Neill did much of the reunion organizing and logistics, enlisting family members to help. He turned over the operation several years ago to Armed Forces Reunions, the parent company of BookMyReunion.com. AFR is managing the upcoming reunion in late September in Daytona, Florida and the 2017 gathering in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Setting up the events took so much effort that it took time away from fellowship. Now I have more opportunity for the camaraderie, remembering those we lost, sharing stories and support,” said Neill, who lives in Cicero, Indiana with his wife Carol. “The 196th was the first light infantry brigade in the army to go to Vietnam and the last to leave. We needed each other then, and we need each other now!”