1970 Chevelle


Fulfilling The Dream Of A Vet Who Never Made It Home

I knew almost nothing about who was close to Peter during his service in Vietnam.  One clue is a calling card that Peter had printed up of his machine gun crew: “1st Guns, Kilo Company, 3/26 … Nick, Pete, Phil and Russ.”   Here is a link to the picture where they are identified.

Then in January of 2012, four years after this website was first published, I received an e-mail from out of the blue.  “Hello Jack. My name is Carmen Russoniello, and I knew your brother Pete well in Vietnam.  I hope to get to know you as well.  I am ‘Russ’ on the calling card you posted and it is my voice on the recording on Christmas eve tape.”

We spoke that evening.  After the perfunctory hello and how-are-yous, the conversation halted as I muttered something vague about where to begin.  Carmen took charge.

He described his professional work, but any attempt on my part do to so would scarcely do him justice. As a professor and Director of the Psychotherapy and Biofeedback Lab at East Carolina University, he is dedicated to the treatment of veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.  In the course of describing his work, he mentioned the use of service dogs and the tragic loss of a dog years ago during a hurricane.    

As he was explaining this to me, I puzzled over where the conversation about dogs was going until he mentioned that he recently acquired such a dog, and named the dog “Mache” (rhymes with “H”), a shortened version of our last name “Machen.”  

Carmen wanted to connect with Peter’s family to tell them that Peter was remembered and being honored.  He searched Google under Peter’s name and found this website.  I tried to imagine what it was like for him to be re-introduced to Peter after so many years, to hear his own voice on that Christmas 1969 recording and to be reminded of events long forgotten during the most difficult time of a young man’s life. 

Carmen’s work was to bring him to Baltimore in a few months.  We made plans to get together.  My parents, I told him, still doing fine at 91 (father) and 88 (mother), would be especially interested in meeting him.  When he and his wife, Ruth Ann, arrived at our doorstep, we lingered only briefly before heading right back out the door, together with my other brother, Henry, to visit my parents in their nearby retirement community.

That evening was unforgettable.  Carmen told stories about life on a machine gun team in Vietnam and how Peter had taught Carmen, the youngest and at first the most inexperienced member of the team, how to survive.  The intensity of that experience under those circumstances, despite it lasting only a few months, welded a bond between these two that has endured for over forty years.  Carmen’s arrival at my house was in some spiritual sense a proxy for my brother returning home. 

We parted company that evening pledging to keep in touch.  There were a few e-mails, but relative silence for a couple of months.  As the summer of 2012 was drawing to a close, I reached out just to touch base.  He responded immediately that he had been thinking of me and wished to call as he had something important to discuss.  I gave him my cell phone number and waited, curious.

Several days later we spoke.  Carmen described a vet he was working with who had experienced the horror of a roadside bomb in Iraq that left him struggling with a traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder.  He was a superb auto mechanic and seemed to find peace when absorbed in a challenging car restoration project.

As with our first conversation about dogs, I wondered where this was going, until Carmen reminded me of something in the letters and recordings that Peter sent home from Vietnam.  Peter was saving up for a Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396. 

Carmen’s idea: Let’s find ourselves a beat up Chevelle and get a team of Marines to turn that machine into Peter’s dream.  The car will become a vehicle, figuratively and literally, to tie together stories of tragedy, loss, healing,  and survival.  Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.  Faraway places that send back to us shattered lives.  The project will be therapeutic to the living and a fitting tribute to one no longer with us.  If the story is told well enough, it should be put in the hands of a documentary film maker. 

I am not sure what we would do with the car when complete, but one possibility is to auction it off with the proceeds going to benefit organizations aiding veterans. Or perhaps we can find some other way in which the Chevelle can stay in the public eye emblematic of something greater.   But, as would be my brother’s wish, I intend to drive it hard for just a bit.

So that’s where we are.  Let’s see where it goes.


POST SCRIPT:  I found the right car on e-Bay in March 2013: A 1970 Chevelle SS 396 that has not been driven since 1989 sitting in a garage in Garden Grove, California.  I towed the car back to the East Coast.  As of December 2014, the car is in Jacksonville, NC just outside Camp Lejeune where a team of retired and active duty Marines of the Wounded Warrior Battalion are working on the car restoration project.  The City of Jacksonville is allowing us to use a garage in what was formerly a tire store which the City recently acquired.   Check out our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/1970ChevelleLLC