For nearly 45 years, Janice Poteet Wade has gone without hearing about the time her younger brother, Glen Poteet, spent in Vietnam. In January, that changed with a ring of the telephone.
Ron Smith of South Wales, N.Y., was on the other end of the line. Smith, who served with Poteet in Vietnam, had been carrying the memory of the man who died in Vietnam in 1969.
“In January I started to think about Glen and I couldn’t shake it,” Smith said. “He was a good man who loved his family and Morganton.”
That phone call led to a planned reunion of Poteet’s brigade members. It was set to take place Saturday in Poteet’s hometown of Morganton, in Western North Carolina. Wade planned to be there.
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She said she and her younger brother were close. She was working at a dental clinic at Ford Benning in Georgia when he was drafted in 1968. Soldiers were often processed there before being sent to Vietnam.
“I had grown accustomed to if your number was called for the draft, you were going to war,” Wade said. “It was still a shock to me when I found out he was drafted. I didn’t even get to tell him goodbye he was shipped off so fast to basic training.”
Poteet was drafted in July, two years after he graduated from high school. Along with a number of other Morganton draftees, he packed up his belongings and shipped out to Louisiana for training.
It was the first time he had left the state, Wade said.
“He loved being home,” she said.
Poteet served under the army’s AMERICAL division as part of the 11th Light Infantry Brigade. Poteet and Smith were stationed in the mountains.
‘He was clever’
Poteet once asked his supervisor to grant him a weeklong leave of absence to see his wife, Wanda, who was supposedly pregnant at the time. His supervisor allowed him to meet her in Hawaii. But Poteet had other plans.
“He came up with a plan to go back home and visit his family,” Smith said. “From Hawaii, he jumped on a plane to Charlotte and headed to Morganton. He was clever; he knew how to get around things.”
Poteet made it home in April 1969. It would be the final time his sister saw him alive.
“The phone rang at 4 a.m., and I immediately thought the worst,” Wade said. “Instead, it was Glen asking me to pick him up from Charlotte.”
Poteet was able to see his wife and family before making the journey back to the battlefield.
With his tour set to finish in July, the end was in sight for Poteet. But on July 4, 1969, Wade received a telegram saying her brother was missing in action.
“I went to bed crying,” she said. “After awhile, I started visualizing him lying up against a tree, just waiting for things to die down. He was a survivor, so to speak.”
Two days later, Poteet’s family received another telegram, this one reporting his death.
While he was making his way to a helicopter, the ground beneath Poteet and numerous other soldiers had erupted.
“He got caught in a minefield and got hit in the back of the head with shrapnel. He was gone instantly,” Smith said. “It was just mayhem.”
Poteet was one of eight men that died in that minefield. Thirty-three more were injured. It was June 30, nearly a year after Poteet was drafted.
Smith and other members of the 11th Brigade are among the roughly 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Smith’s recent diagnosis and treatment kick-started him into trying to reach out to Poteet’s family. He went to thewall-usa.com, a website dedicated to soldiers who died during the Vietnam War, to begin his search.
When that came up dry, Smith turned to social media. He came across a genealogy group for Burke County on Facebook and asked if anyone knew any Poteets from Morganton.
“I got a reply, and someone emailed me: ‘I think this name is familiar, let me do some searching,’ ” he said. “She eventually found his sister in Cary.”
When Wade received the call from Smith, she said she thought it was a scam.
“Within five minutes he starts telling me things, I knew it had to be someone that was right by Glen’s side,” she said. “At that point we broke down. After about 15 to 20 minutes, we were able to laugh.”
Smith asked about Poteet’s daughters that had been born when he was on duty. It turns out, Poteet and his wife never had children – it was the ploy to get him home to see his family.
“I told our sergeant that’s still alive about the made-up daughters,” Smith said. “He more or less said, ‘That rascal, that son of a gun.’ ”
Smith was able to connect Wade with a fellow veteran, Bill Sylvester, who was near Poteet when he died.
“I didn’t know how he died all these years,” Wade said. “I had always hoped that when I met a Vietnam veteran, they would be able to tell me. He fulfilled my final wish.”
After Smith and Wade’s initial phone call, Wade started talking about getting the surviving members of the 11th Brigade together for a reunion. After considering Washington, the group decided to meet at Morganton, where Poteet is buried.
“They decided that if they were ever going to face their memories, they needed to do it now before they got any older,” Wade said. “It just really fell into place.”
The reunion has greatly expanded since Wade initially planned it. Originally expecting around 50 people – Vietnam veterans from Morganton, the 11th Brigade and their families – she later estimated around 200 people would attend.
“What really amazed me is that people who weren’t involved are sharing this burden with my family,” Wade said. “Anybody that I’ve mentioned anything to has been nothing but helpful. People have gone out of their way to support us.”
The date of the reunion also is special – it would have been Poteet’s birthday.