By David Venditta
My cousin Nicky Venditti, a small-town American kid with a love of fast cars and practical jokes, came home in a coffin from Vietnam in the summer of 1969, cut down in combat, so the family story went, after just a few days in the war zone at Chu Lai. Fifteen years old at the time, I went to his funeral and grieved with my family but let my scant memories of Nicky fade as time passed.
Twenty-five years later, in an off-hand search on an afternoon in the newsroom where I worked, I discovered he did not die at the hands of the enemy. He died because an instructor threw what was supposed to be a dummy grenade into the classroom to shock the new guys into respecting the ordnance they would be handling in the field. The grenade was live.
From that moment on, I searched for how such a thing could have happened, what the Army did about it and who ultimately answered for the tragedy. Tragedy at Chu Lai is a journey of discovery that the Army turned its back on the tragedy and on the hundreds of family and friends wrenched by Nicky’s death and the loss of two other soldiers who died with him. Woven among the loss and sadness is a life-affirming reconstruction of family, friendship, loyalty and small-town life in 1960s America.