They bonded as brothers at age 19 while serving their country – surviving a war on the other side of the world. And brothers don’t forget each other.
After Jack Torbett was wounded by a booby trap in 1967 in a field while fighting in Vietnam, his Army pal Bobby Don Shelton and a sergeant risked their lives under fire, carrying him to a medical helicopter.
It proved to be a monumental moment for both men.
The two former privates – now both age 65 – finally reunited last week when Torbett and his wife Murel arrived in Granbury from Grand Ridge, Fla., in their Ford pickup pulling a large camper trailer.
“He was definitely my best friend over there,” said Shelton, whose best friend now is his wife, Mae. They live in the Laguna Tres subdivision north of Granbury.
“He toted me out on a door,” said Torbett, who would spend 48 days in various military hospitals during his recovery.
“I thought, ‘Now where did they find this door?’” Torbett joked. “That’s the way you did all the wounded – you did your best to get them out as soon as possible.”
Shelton didn’t know where the door came from either, but said, “God put it there, I guess.”
Torbett had no doubt about one thing.
“I think it was wonderful bravery, risking their life in getting us out of there,” Torbett said.
Until 2004, Shelton had no idea whether his best Army buddy survived the wound he suffered that day.
“I was hoping and praying,” Shelton said. “Thirty-seven years later, I called him.”
Shelton said that, for many years, he was unable to find Torbett’s contact information. The Internet wasn’t available for common usage until the 1990s, and private information on veterans who returned home wounded was not made available to the public.
Finally, Shelton tracked down Torbett’s phone number through a connection with a veterans reunion group in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“That’s when I found out he was in Florida,” Shelton said. “They had his address.”
Torbett said he wasn’t certain that Shelton was still among the living.
“You wonder about people – if they got home,” Torbett said.
Shelton said he got a call on May 4 from Torbett, saying he was already in East Texas and on his way to Granbury. Torbett said he intended to surprise his old friend and just “drive up to his door,” but later decided he should call first.
Shelton said that these days he is “just walking in the light” as a Christian and is certain that the surprise reunion came about as a result of a series of prayers leading up to a recent revival at his congregation, First Baptist Church.
Just before heading back home Friday morning, Torbett said their reunion had been “marvelous.”
“I’m so happy, you can’t describe it – just to be back together,” Torbett said as they sat at an outdoor table at the RV park where the Torbetts had been staying.
“I’m blown away. This man drove all the way from Florida to see me,” Shelton said in amazement.
“I came to see my brother – my long-lost brother,” Torbett replied.
“We’ll be going to Florida to see them,” Shelton said with a hopeful look in his eyes.
Torbett and Shelton said this interview was the first time they had ever told their story publicly.
“We still haven’t forgotten it. We’ve just been able to live with it,” Shelton said of their silence.
The two first met in late March of 1967, when their battalion was in the area of Duc Pho, a village in the Quang Ngai Province, central South Vietnam. They were in Charlie Company, 2nd battalion of the 25th Infantry Division. Their 3rd brigade was known as Tropic Lightning.
A little over a month before Torbett was wounded, an attack by the Viet Cong inflicted massive casualties on the American soldiers. Torbett survived that without being wounded.
“On March 21st, the entire company almost got wiped out,” said Shelton, who had been in Vietnam about three months. “On the 23rd was when I got there.”
Torbett’s injury occurred on July 1, while their platoon of 32 men was marching single-file on patrol. He said a medic told him it was a miracle that shrapnel from the explosion – which exited through his lower left stomach area – didn’t hit his intestines or shatter his hip.
“The guy behind me got killed,” Torbett said. “I was that close to death. I thought my whole back hip was gone.”
The Viet Cong then began their assault using small arms fire from relatively close range.
A Huey Medivac helicopter arrived about 25 minutes later to pick up the wounded, but Shelton said the firefight went on about four or five hours. The U.S. forces put an end to the battle when fighter bombers arrived – strafing and bombing the Viet Cong.
Shelton suffered a gunshot wound to his right hand during a different battle and was also shipped back to the states.
During his nine-month tour of duty, he earned two Purple Heart medals, plus Medals of Valor from the U.S. and South Vietnam. He remains proud of his Combat Infantryman’s badge, earned by soldiers who come under enemy fire in battle.
Torbett, whose tour of duty lasted seven months, also has a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman badge as well.
Shelton said his outlook on life was altered by his war experience.
“When you faced death and won, you have an appreciation for life that gives you a joy nobody else has,” Shelton said. “And we faced death every day.”
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