MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — For Steve Leighton, the bond to his fellow soldiers formed in 1966, when he was an American advisor to a unit of the 42nd Battalion of South Vietnamese Rangers.
That bond was broken a year later when Leighton left Vietnam and said goodbye to his commander and buddy, Captain Le Long. After 40 years of wondering what came of his friend, his answer appeared like a shot of lightning. A phone call earlier this week would bring an end to his search.
In the Applebee’s restaurant on the University of Minnesota campus, the two aging warriors were reunited.
“I think and I hope this will be a lasting relationship, I mean he lives here in town, this is unbelievable, unbelievable!” Leighton exclaimed.
Long and his family fled Vietnam in 1993. As a commanding officer during the war, he was sent to a Vietnamese “re-education camp” when the Communist North Vietnam overtook the South in 1975. Long would spend the next 13 years in hard labor and away from his family.
Leighton came back to his home state of Minnesota and resumed his life, never knowing what happened to his good friend. What is so ironic is Long and his family settled in Minneapolis when they left Vietnam, not knowing Leighton was here too.
A few weeks ago, Leighton and his wife Donna went back to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta hoping to find some trace of his old comrades. When they returned with few clues, Leighton contacted the group “Counterparts,” which traces former American advisors and their Vietnamese comrades. Through that association, Leighton was put in touch with Long’s daughter, Annie, a student at the U of M.
“Your dad gave me something when I left Vietnam,” Leighton told Annie at the long overdue reunion. “I gave it to her some years ago.” It was a gold Buddha charm that Donna Leighton now wears around her wrist.
For several hours, the two families exchanged photos and memories, hugs and tears. They were brought together by fate or luck, chance or perhaps Buddha’s charm.
“Well it’s unbelievable, this is my brother in arms, we were in the war together, this will be the best Thanksgiving I’ve ever had,” beamed a tearful Steve Leighton.