His long journey to Vietnam nearly over, Kevin Reynolds cupped his hands and scooped sand from a berm near where his 23-year-old brother was killed during the war.
Reynolds, 67, had traveled to the village last month, hoping to find the exact spot where Marine 2nd Lt. Richard Reynolds Jr. had died in 1968 and also to bring a small measure of closure to a long and painful family history.
Saving the sand in a jar marked the culmination of a journey that had taken the East Hampton retired New York City police officer more than 8,000 miles to complete.
Rudy Molina, a Vietnam veteran and a friend of Richard Reynolds who made the trip, said, “He was just like in a trance or something, in deep thought.”
“We both were quiet,” said Molina, 69, of Coulterville, California. “It was emotional for me, too. It was almost 50 years since this happened, and to be walking in the same spot where his brother was killed and my friend was killed, it was eerie feeling.”
Reynolds, who said he had pushed away memories of his brother’s death in the decades since it happened, joined a two-week tour of Vietnam last month organized by two veterans, hoping to find the place north of Hue in central Vietnam where his brother died in an ambush.
Richie Reynolds died Jan. 20, 1968, in a hail of machine-gun fire during an intense firefight near the Cua Viet River. The battle was a few dozen miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
Using battle maps and descriptions of the fighting, Reynolds came to a spot near a cemetery from which it is believed the ambush had been sprung.
“I was thinking of my brother and the 12 other souls who died with him,” Reynolds recalled after he returned home of the moment when he scooped earth from where his brother, whom the family called Richie, fell. “I could run off all 13 names in my head.”
Richie Reynolds had been commanding the 3rd Platoon, A Company, 1st AmTrac Battalion, 3rd Marine Division that day. Another group of GIs had been pinned down by North Vietnamese troops, and Reynolds had rallied his men to come to their defense.
Kevin Reynolds, who was then 18, learned of his brother’s death when a pair of U.S. Marines came to the home where they then lived in upper Manhattan. Kevin Reynolds said his father, Richard Sr., and his mother, Rita, rarely spoke of their son’s death.
But Reynolds became curious about the details of his brother’s death about three years ago, after reading an account of the fatal firefight that he felt unfairly depicted his brother as having miscalculated against a numerically stronger enemy. Reynolds tracked down members of his brother’s platoon, who shared bits of information about his brother’s final battle.
Not long after, Reynolds decided to join the growing number of Americans who are visiting places in Vietnam that remain emotionally significant to them 44 years after U.S. combat troops left the country.
In all, 58,220 Americans died in the war, according to the National Archives. More than 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians also perished.
On March 5, Kevin Reynolds left on a war-related tour of Vietnam arranged by Vietnam Battlefield Tours, a Texas-based nonprofit run by five Vietnam veterans. The group has hosted about 1,500 visitors per year since 2005. His itinerary included visits to some of the most iconic locations of the war, including the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison and Khe Sanh.
During his trip, Reynolds brought clothing and toys to an orphanage in Da Nang, a city that American troops had used as a giant military base, and whose surrounding area had been devastated by the fighting. He considered it a peace gesture on behalf of his brother.
Finding closure, Kevin Reynolds said, might never be fully possible. But finding the spot where his brother perished brought a connection that had eluded him for the decades since his passing, Reynolds said.
In the emotional moment when he reached the spot where his brother died, Reynolds scooped up the sand, but forgot to bury a scarf he had given his mother before she died in 1993.
“I was finally in an area that had been crisscrossed several times by my brother and his men, and that was satisfying,” Reynolds said of his trip. “This was the finish line for me.”