They were the best of buddies in the worst of circumstances.
Thomas Bragg and Eddie Lama found friendship amid the madness of Vietnam in the late 1960s, young soldiers tossed together in an almost unimaginable situation.
On passing glance, Bragg and Lama might have seemed to have little in common: Bragg grew up on a tobacco farm near South Hill, while Lama was a star athlete from a suburb of Chicago. Bragg was black, Lama white.
But they were kindred spirits.
“We were like the two clowns,” said Bragg, smiling at the recollection when I interviewed him for a 2016 column about his Vietnam days and his friendship with Lama. “We always kept something going.”
Both had Polaroid cameras that produced instant snapshots, so they took a lot of pictures: of each other, of their platoon members in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, of just about anything.
When the war was over, they promised they would visit each other back in the States. Bragg didn’t realize then it would take him five decades to fulfill that vow — for reasons he could not have envisioned and wouldn’t have wanted to.
The war ended for Lama before he came home. He was killed near the end of his tour, on March 31, 1969, after volunteering to fill in for another soldier on patrol.
Bragg saw a lot of dying in Vietnam, but Lama’s death hit him especially hard.
“Those of us who were left had to keep on fighting,” said Bragg, “but I had an empty feeling inside after Eddie was gone.”
Bragg carried that empty feeling with him — as well as a cigar box filled with photos made by Lama and mailed home to Bragg’s family — for the next 50 years. He struggled with nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder and retired on disability from his work as a nurse. It’s hard to say exactly what Bragg was looking for when he walked through the door of the Blackstone Conference and Retreat Center in the fall of 2015, responding to a notice in a local newspaper placed by Michael Lund, now a professor emeritus of English at Longwood University, who was starting a writing workshop for military veterans and their families.
But I think you could say now that he found it.
Bragg arrived at the workshop — called “Home and Abroad: A Writing Program for Military Veterans” — with the box of old photos he used to keep under his bed and a desire to find a way to reach out to Lama’s family and get the pictures in their hands.
Lund, a former Army correspondent who served in Vietnam in 1970-71, tracked down Lama’s siblings and sent them copies of the photos Bragg had preserved. The Lama family sent Bragg copies of photos that Eddie had mailed home. With Lund’s help, Bragg then produced a booklet about his Vietnam experience and friendship with Lama.
When I spoke to Bragg in early 2016, he still had not met Lama’s family, and he wasn’t sure he ever would, travel logistics and painful memories being the major obstacles.
In stepped John Hodge.
Hodge was the leader of Bragg and Lama’s platoon. He was wounded on the same day that Lama was killed and always felt haunted by that connection.
“I was shot, and I can remember as I lifted off in the helicopter there was a lot of [shooting] going on,” Hodge said in a phone interview from his home in Evansville, Ind. “Two days later, another guy in my platoon stopped in the hospital and told me Lama had been killed. I think he was killed just as my helicopter was taking off. It broke my heart for a good man like that to die.”
Hodge remembered Lama as “dependable,” as in, “If there was one guy to get the job done, it was Ed Lama.”
“He never complained,” Hodge said. “He worked hard. I felt so bad that I never saw his parents … never went to tell them that I thought the world of their son.”
That’s why Hodge began searching in 2018 for clues online that would help him locate Lama’s family. He came upon a story that mentioned Lama — probably the one I wrote in 2016, although he couldn’t recall for sure — and he wound up contacting Lund to reach Bragg.
Long story short, Hodge set up a reunion with Bragg and a few others on the last weekend of March in Lama’s hometown of Mundelein, Ill., which would include a visit to Lama’s grave on the 50th anniversary of his death.
Four members of the platoon, including Bragg, were there, as well as one of Lama’s brothers and a niece. As a spring wind whipped around the cemetery, the old soldiers stood at attention at Lama’s grave while Hodge played a YouTube recording of taps through his smartphone.
“I think Ed deserved one last salute before we all left,” said Hodge, who has now visited Lama’s grave four times.
Bragg, 71, made the 13-hour drive with his brother and sister to be there. Lund flew out and met them there.
Lund, who’s still leading writing workshops for veterans and their families, described the gathering as “powerful.” The experience, Lund said, was “one of the purest things I’ve done.”
Bragg felt the same.
Standing at Lama’s grave “took me back to the day it happened,” Bragg told me. “I guess it was a little closure. Even though he’s gone, I got to visit his hometown and see some of his family.”
He also kept his promise.
“We had promised each other we would visit each other when we got out,” Bragg said. “Since he didn’t get out, going to his grave was completing my journey.”