Two men sat at a table looking over medals, patches and other paraphernalia from the Vietnam War last Saturday evening at the Merchants Association of Columbia County Fairgrounds.
They made an odd couple. Thomas F. Sandoval III is a 35-year-old trucker living in the Atlanta area. He is a clean-cut and well-groomed Latin-American who came to the fairgrounds that day to find his father's name on the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Wall, which was in Martinez last Friday and Saturday.
Sandoval's companion is Dan "Cajun" Brown, a 64-year-old retired mechanic sporting a flowing gray-and-white beard, glasses and an old Army jacket. Brown served several tours in Vietnam, most of which were spent with the 25th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army. He came that day to honor all his former comrades who gave their life in that foreign war.
Sandoval and Brown met in 1991 when Sandoval brought his truck into Brown's shop to be repaired. Brown saw Sandoval's name and the wheels in his mind immediately begin spinning, reminding him of a certain door gunner on a Huey helicopter he had served with 25 years before who also had the name Sandoval.
"Imagine Cajun coming up to you and saying I knew your father a quarter of a century ago," said Sandoval, the father of four children with his wife, Hope. "I was a little surprised to say the least, especially since I never knew my father. He died when I was 8 months old."
Brown struck up a friendship with Sandoval by telling him stories of Vietnam and how he used to hitch rides on Sandoval's father's Huey from one landing zone to the next.
"He looked familiar to me right off the bat," said Brown, "but I wasn't quite sure. I called up a colonel I knew from back then and confirmed it through him. Then I just went back to Thomas and let him know that I served with his father.
"Back then we called him Sandy," continued Brown. "Everyone had nicknames in Vietnam. It was a lot quicker than calling out someone's entire name. Because I kept my hair shaved then, I was always called Buddha."
Both men still are amazed at the happy coincidence that brought them together, and Sandoval swears to never take it for granted.
"Cajun has been really good about sharing his stories with me about the war and my father," said Sandoval. "I feel really lucky that I've been given the chance to know him and to know my father a little better."
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