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THEN & NOW: Three Veterans Reunite at Base Where They Trained 57 Years Ago

They shared a hooch and so much more during the Vietnam War

spinner image Thomas Fischer shakes hands with command sergeant major Andre Welch.
Thomas Fischer shakes the hand of Command Sgt. Maj. Andre Welch after touring the memorials at Fort Meade. Thomas reunited with former Army comrades Kenneth Huelsman (right) and Paul Lange (not pictured) to revisit the grounds where they trained.
Jenny Wagner/Wish of a Lifetime

In the spring of 1966, three young soldiers received their orders for Fort Meade, Maryland, and traveled together to join the Army’s 519th Transportation Battalion. Ken Huelsman and Paul Lange had been drafted and Tom Fischer had enlisted. 

The Vietnam War was ramping up and the trio thought they’d be heading into combat. They didn’t know if they would survive the next year.

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Not only did they survive but 57 years later they reunited back at Fort Meade — now home of the National Security Agency—where their adult lives had begun. 

After Fort Meade, the trio were surprised to find that they were being sent to Korat Air Base in Thailand. There, they lived in the same hooch for the 18 months they served overseas, and it’s there that Paul got his nickname, “Mother.” 

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“I just straightened up, probably because the way I was raised and jobs I did,” Paul said. “They called me ‘Mother,' and I had an apron when I cleaned. ‘Mother' has been retired for a while, but she still operates.”

Ken, Paul and Tom returned to the U.S. from Thailand within days of each other, and then went their separate ways. In a time without email or social media, they kept in touch for a while but “lost contact as our families grew and life got busier,” Paul said.

Then, 10 years ago, Tom called Paul out of the blue.

“I knew it was his voice the minute I heard it,” Paul said. “It hadn’t changed at all. Getting back together has probably been the highlight of our lives.”

None had been back to Fort Meade. In May, Ken, Paul and Tom went back to the place where they first met nearly 57 years ago to the day. The trip was made possible by the AARP-affiliated charity Wish of a Lifetime

They dug out old photos from 1966 to refresh their memories and share with base officials.

“We had them blown up to 8x10s and showed the colonel and others what it was like when we were there,” Ken said. 

The photos helped them find where their old barracks had once stood.

“During the tour they gave us at the post, they took us out in the direction of Boom Town, which is still there, and we went down this one road,” Tom recalled. “As soon as I saw that road, I knew that was the spot that we were. That's where our barracks were at the time.”

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They were surprised by how Fort Meade has changed and grown over the decades.

“We were kids when we were at Fort Meade, 19 or 20 years old,” Ken said. “It’s a whole lot different, going back to see it now. It surprised me, because now there’s 62,000 people on that base.”

Their reunion at Fort Meade, and the hospitality they were shown, meant the world to the three friends.

spinner image Three men hold photos of their time during the Vietnam War.
Paul Lange, Thomas Fischer and Kenneth Huelsman trained together at Fort Meade during the Vietnam War and reunited there 57 years later with the help of Wish of a Lifetime.
Jenny Wagner/Wish of a Lifetime

“It’s hard for me to put into words what it meant to the three of us,” Paul said. “It was just unbelievable; that’s where our friendship bloomed and grew from there.”

The three of them are already planning another get-together in September in Tom’s hometown of St. Louis.

Their friendship is as meaningful now as it was when it was forged more than 50 years ago.

“We’ll always be friends,” Ken said. “We’re not biological, but we are brothers.”

AARP’s Wish of a Lifetime actively encourages veterans and their families to apply for a wish

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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