As the war in Iraq approaches its fifth anniversary, SI senior writer Jack McCallum—still haunted by the death in Vietnam of his best friend and teammate—searched for a small-town high school standout killed in action. He found that though they died nearly four decades apart, Bobby Gasko (left) and Mike Arciola were connected by more than their legacies
This is an article from the Oct. 22, 2007 issue
THE LITTLE League fields in Elmsford, N.Y., sit along Route 9A, hard by a swamp created by the Saw Mill River. When the river floods, swamp water spills onto the fields, and with it come the mosquitoes. Amanda Arciola saw every Little League game her younger brother, Mike, played there with the exception of two or three that preceded a high school dance; she was afraid she would get bites all over her arms. Amanda, now 26, dabs at her damp eyes and shakes her head at the memory. The dances "seemed so important at the time," she says. ¬∂ One of the two fields is now named after her brother. It was dedicated on April 1, 2005, six weeks after Army Pfc. Michael Anthony Arciola, 20, was killed by a sniper's bullet in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq. His death was front-page news in Elmsford (pop. 4,761), a town in Westchester County that its residents invariably describe as "one mile square." Arciola had been a lifelong resident of Elmsford and a standout athlete at Alexander Hamilton High, a catcher in the spring and summer, and a soccer midfielder in the fall.
His flag-draped coffin was unloaded at Dover (Del.) Air Force Base on Feb. 17, 2005. There were no cameras there to record the moment, owing to a 1991 Department of Defense edict against press coverage of returning bodies. The funeral was held in Elmsford, but Arciola's body was laid to rest in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery.
So it goes. Fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam, and the number inches toward 4,200 in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are relatives and friends who live with those deaths every day. News of another fatal roadside bombing, arguments about "phony soldiers" on talk radio, any sign that America has forgotten its casualties of war—they all bring memories rushing back to those they left behind. For some, the spark doesn't have to be anything dramatic, maybe just the crack of a bat....
In July, on my first trip to Elmsford, Robert Arciola Sr., Michael's father, showed me a photograph of his son at age 9, standing at the plate. Mike holds his bat high; his head is steady and his feet wide apart. He stands precisely like a young athlete I once knew named Bobby Gasko, who was killed in a patch of jungle in Vietnam on Jan. 20, 1970. Bobby batted right, threw left, played leftfield and was also a damn good linebacker.
He was my best friend.
THE FRIEND of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist anymore ... and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire.
—ROBERT PENN WARREN
All the King's Men
I don't remember exactly when Bobby and I became best friends, but it had happened by the third grade. In May 1958, in my first Little League at bat of the season, Bobby was on the mound. He threw a pitch that I lashed foul just outside the third base line. "So you think you're smart, Gasko?" I shouted. Then he struck me out. My father, who was my team's manager, reamed me out for mouthing off (and failing to deliver). "I didn't mean anything by it," I said. "Bobby's my best friend."
We grew up in Mays Landing, N.J., which in the 1950s was a sleepy town of about 2,000. The town is much more prosperous these days, functioning as kind of a bedroom community for that glitter-and-gloom gambling mecca, Atlantic City.
Some of our friends thought Bobby was rich because his father owned a Pontiac dealership, and they thought I was kind of rich because my father owned a small grocery store. In fact Bobby was kind of rich, and I wasn't rich at all. But like young princes we had the run of the buildings in which our fathers made their livings, Bobby in the gloriously greasy garages where the mechanics' work was done, I amid the unstocked cartons in the back of the store and the blood-and-guts prep room behind the butcher counter.
Bobby and I were months younger than most of our classmates, and for one glorious season that kept us back in the Little League minors. Playing on opposing teams managed by our respective fathers, we each must've hit .800. Our teams (I played for the Giants, Bobby for the Orioles) made the championship series in that magical year of 1959, and it was a taut best-of-three, which my team won by taking Games 1 and 3. Four decades later I ran into our retired gym teacher, Carl Anderson, who told me that he had taken a soundless 8-mm film of the championship game. He'd had it converted to a VCR tape and gave me a copy. So one night I slipped it in and watched Bobby, a stocky lefthander, and me, a skinny righthander, alternating on the mound. We pitched and batted and ran like characters in an age-old silent film, black-and-white ghosts, backlit by time.
MIKE ARCIOLA became best friends with Mike Cerone at the Little League complex in Elmsford. They went to different schools—Mike A. to public, Mike C. to parochial—but they connected as they shagged flies and slapped mosquitoes on the fields along 9A. Mike C. had four older brothers. They called Mike A. "the sixth Cerone."
The two Mikes were the only 11-year-olds selected for the Little League tournament team in 1996. Each could play several positions, but Mike A. usually caught and Mike C. pitched and played center. As 12-year-olds they led Elmsford to the District 20 championship.
Mike A.'s outstanding qualities as a player were speed, plate discipline and leadership. "Mike always played real mature," says Cerone. "Whether he went 4 for 4 or 0 for 4 didn't make a difference. He almost never struck out. He'd make contact and move somebody along. He'd throw a guy out at second. It was always something for the team."
The Arciolas weren't rich. Robert Arciola owned a painting business but was beset by heart problems and diabetes and was unable to work much of the time. His wife, Teresa, from whom he separated in 1996, worked two jobs to help support the children: Cassandra (called Casey), now 30; fraternal twins Robert Jr. and Amanda, 26; and Mike, the youngest by four years, whom his dad and brother called Mikey.
Mike was a typical youngest child, the little darling, the cutup who got by on charm—"a hopeless flirt," as Amanda puts it. Casey would take him to the movies with her girlfriends, and he would plop down on a seat in the middle of them, and they would coo over him. Everyone in Mike's family (except his brother) talks about the way he batted his eyelashes. His father, who lost his left leg and his right eye to diabetes, a man torn up by bitterness and disease, dissolves in tears when he remembers "a little, curly-haired, eyelash-fluttering kid who used to look at me and say, 'I love you, Daddy,' and after that I was helpless."
I BONED UP on the history and the minutiae of sports, foreshadowing the career I would choose, but Bobby just played, relying on talent, instinct and an uncanny composure. He was competitive as hell, though. After I called him out on strikes at a Babe Ruth League game I was umpiring, he looked at me contemptuously, started for the dugout and tossed his bat on the ground so it hit my foot. I threw him out of the game. An hour later we were drinking milk shakes together at Perry's Custard Stand.
When we were in seventh grade, the Mays Landing Athletic Association started a Pop Warner football team. Bobby played halfback and linebacker. Though I scored often from my right-end position, I was a fraud, quick but wary of contact. Bobby was a real player. He lacked the speed to be a really effective halfback, but he was a deadly tackler. Sometimes he'd be lost in the pile—he was about five feet tall at the time and would never grow past 5'6"—but the opposing ballcarrier almost always went down with Bobby's arms wrapped around his ankles. When we were in eighth grade, Bobby was chosen to play in a Pop Warner all-star game in Florida, which to me might as well have been Saturn. Bob and Roxy Gasko, Bobby's parents, invited me along and paid my way, my first trip on an airplane.
The summer before our freshman year in high school, an all-star baseball team for which Bobby and I were picked made it to the finals of the county championship. I led off and played shortstop; Bobby batted second and played left. In the bottom of the seventh inning, game tied, I went to the plate with the bases loaded, one out. I'd never been so sure I was going to get a game-winning hit, but all I managed was a weak bouncer to third, and our man was forced at home. Up came Bobby. As I led off first base, I remember thinking: This is over. Sure enough, Bobby whistled a hard grounder past the pitcher and over second base, and that was that.
I did better in school than Bobby, but he always seemed mature in ways that I was not. When we were 11, we camped out in a small tent in his side yard and Bobby cooked scrambled eggs over a Coleman stove. I thought it was astounding, both the taste of the eggs and the fact that he had cooked them. When he led the exercises in Pop Warner, Bobby insisted that we put our hands out to the side when we did our push-ups. He called them "Army push-ups." I cursed under my breath—"Come on, Gasko, give us a break!"—but Bobby just smiled and did his Army push-ups.
He was loyal, resourceful, gutsy and competent, and if you put all that together, I suppose, you have the character of a soldier.
ELMSFORD'S Alexander Hamilton High is a three-story brick building built in 1929. It bears a striking resemblance to Mays Landing School, the grammar school that Bobby and I attended, right down to the BOYS ENTRANCE and GIRLS ENTRANCE signs over the front doors. Mike Arciola had started playing soccer in eighth grade, and he was a natural at it. He was Hamilton's co-captain his junior and senior years, a midfielder who sometimes moved to marking back when an opposing forward needed extra attention.
"Mike led by example," says Kevin Tilokee, the other captain, a strapping 6'5" 235-pounder. "I would yell at teammates, but Mike would just go and play their positions. He never gave up. After we lost in the sectional final our senior year and were riding back on the bus, I looked over and saw tears in his eyes. I was shocked. I wanted to win and all, but Mike? It was everything to him."
To someone who wanted to win that badly, high school baseball taught a lesson in forbearance. In the three seasons that Mike played for Hamilton, the Red Raiders never won a baseball game. Not one. And some they lost by preposterous margins. Mike Cerone, who had become a star centerfielder for Iona Prep, remembers the night he heard that Elmsford had lost a game 42--3. He called Mikey and asked, "You mean you guys couldn't even score one touchdown?"
As competitive as he was, Mike never blamed others for losses. "He might get on somebody for dogging it at practice, but I never heard him say anything negative to a teammate during a game," says Kevin Budzynski, Hamilton's soccer and baseball coach. In a dozen interviews with Mike's relatives, friends and coaches, each mentioned this: On both teams Mike would run extra laps so the slower players would have someone to finish with.
He was a cheerleader not only for his teammates, but also for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Maria Prestigiacomo, who pitched for the Hamilton girls' softball team. Whenever her games didn't conflict with his, Mike was in the stands rooting her on and boosting her spirits when she got frustrated. "The baseball and softball teams were extremely close," says Maria, "and Mike was the reason. He'd round everybody up, and they'd all sit in one section and cheer. We weren't that good, either, but Mike made it fun."
Mike extracted all the joy he could from baseball. He bugged Budzynski to let him hit lefty, and the coach allowed him to do it so long as he got a hit righty first. On his last plate appearance of some games, he used a wooden bat, just to be traditional. Budzynski batted him third. "He was a natural leadoff hitter or second-spot guy because he had great plate discipline, but on our team we needed him third," says the coach. Mike caught for most of his first two years, but as a senior he volunteered to surrender the position to a freshman, Carl Sartori, so the team would have a catcher when he was gone. Sartori, now 19, calls Mike "my mentor, the best teammate I ever had."
Since Mike's death, his uniform number, 13, has not been given to another Elmsford player. "And as long as I'm coach," says Budzynski, "it won't be." Budzynski's teams now close out their daily practices by yelling, "Thirteen!"
I GOT CUT from Oakcrest High's freshman baseball team, and if you have an hour or two I can filibuster you on the reasons that should not have happened. Worse, the coach who cut me installed the lefthanded Bobby at third base for much of the season. It just about sent my father over the edge. He really liked Bobby, but that didn't change the fact that a southpaw is at a severe disadvantage at the position. (The varsity coach would move Bobby to leftfield, restoring order to the universe.)
When Bobby was a sophomore, he got kicked in the groin during football practice. I remember visiting him in a depressing hospital room. One of his testicles was rendered useless, and a doctor later told him it was unlikely he would father children—which turned out not to be true. But Bobby would never play football again. Without it, he joined Oakcrest's first male cheerleading squad. I can still see him in a gray sweater hollering into one of those giant cones.
High school went on, and we stayed friends through girlfriend changes, contrasting academic performances and different sports seasons. In the senior yearbook poll Bobby was voted Best Personality and Warmest Smile, and I got Most Typical Senior. We were otherwise immortalized on back-to-back pages in the yearbook's sports section. I'm in midair, going in for a layup; turn the page, and there's Bobby at the plate, feet spread wide apart, bat raised—the stance he'd adopted as an eight-year-old.
I remember standing outside the school on a cool May afternoon of my senior year watching an Oakcrest baseball game from afar. Pride always stopped me from watching up close. Bobby was at the plate, and I heard the sharp crack of the bat a split second after he swung. The ball found the hole between first and second. I felt good for Bobby and sorry for myself.
If you'd told me then that Bobby would live just another 2 1/2 years, I would've called you insane.
SOMETHING CHANGED inside of Mike Arciola on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He had returned to Hamilton High for his junior year with a starter set of cornrows, but on the day after the two planes crashed into the World Trade Center he showed up for school with his head shaved. He had already been talking about joining the military but, as his mother, Teresa, says, "This cemented it." In the summer of 2002, he enlisted in the Army. For his senior message in the yearbook he had written, "Peace on earth and goodwill to mankind," adding in French, "F--- you, bin Laden." By the time anybody noticed, the books had already gone to print.
Mike's friends never explored his reasons for enlisting with him, much less tried to talk him out of it. "Mike was the type of person you didn't even try to persuade," says Tilokee. "Anyway, it was his thing, and I always thought he'd be O.K."
So did his brother. "I didn't think anything would touch him," says Robert. "It was Mikey. Good things happened to Mikey." His mother tried to block the danger out of her mind, but his sister obsessed about it. "I didn't think he'd be O.K.," Amanda says, wiping away tears. "I just had a bad feeling about it. He was special, and I don't know ... it seems like they take special people away." When Mikey left for boot camp in July 2003, it took 10 minutes for others to pry Amanda off him.
BOBBY WAS accepted at Rider College in Lawrenceville, N.J., where he had hoped to walk on to the baseball team. In November 1967, two months into his freshman year, he wrote to Al Hedelt, his baseball coach at Oakcrest High.
The situation here looks dim for me. They have 18 freshmen on baseball scholarships, but you know and I know that won't stop me. I can't believe how much I miss Oakcrest and all the friends.... I sort of wish my senior year was starting all over again. It seems that you always must move forward and things of the past are just gone forever.
As it happened, Bobby didn't even go out for baseball in the spring. The odds against him seemed too great, and by then he had pledged a fraternity and was having a good time going to parties. Too good a time, it turned out. His grades plummeted, and Rider informed him that he would have to attend summer school.
We played baseball together for the Mays Landing Lakers of the Atlantic County League in the summer of '68, and as we sat together in the dugout before one game Bobby told me, "I'm thinking about not going back to school, and working for my dad." I couldn't relate. That summer had been a life-changer for me. I had watched the tumult of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on TV, the antiwar demonstrations, the generational struggle that seemed to be tearing the country apart. Everything seemed so charged, so important. Then, too, leaving the warm bosom of college—parties, visions of coeds in the spring, intramural sports, music, a vague desire to major in English and spout a little Camus between puffs of pot—seemed unthinkable.
Plus, there was this shadow hanging over our lives, the successor to the Soviet nuclear threat that hovered over the 1950s.
"What about Vietnam?" I asked.
Bobby shrugged. "Whatever happens, happens," he said.
The first thing that happened was that Bobby received the following letter:
Dear Mr. Gasko,
The records of the Registrar's Office indicate that you have not registered for either session of the 1968 Summer School. As previously indicated to you, your attendance was mandatory. Consequently, the Committee on Academic Standing has directed that you be dismissed from Rider College.
I returned to Muhlenberg College in eastern Pennsylvania for my sophomore year, having given up basketball after an undistinguished freshman season. Bobby started working for his father, and the two men engaged from time to time in a debate about his military status. Behind the scenes Bob Gasko Sr., who was active in county Republican politics, tried to exercise his clout to keep Bobby from being drafted. He suggested to Bobby that he join the National Guard, enlist in the Navy, reapply to college or even, when the inevitable draft notice came, consider fleeing to Canada.
Bobby, however, did nothing about changing his 1-A classification. He had fallen hard for a girl named Janice Gillingham; he had a revved-up GTO; he was doing well at the dealership and if the Army called, well, he would answer. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he longed for adventure. Maybe he just wanted to serve his country. I don't know. But in June 1969 he got his draft notice. He told me at one of our baseball games. He also unloaded this bombshell: Janice is pregnant. We're getting married at Fort Dix in July, and I want you to be my best man.
The wedding had an air of unreality, and not just because it was held on an Army base. Janice seemed like a great girl, but I really didn't know her. Bobby had a buzz cut, his beloved Brylcreemed pompadour now a distant memory. The friends with whom he was going through basic training seemed alien to me, as I surely was to them. My hair and sideburns were long, and I wore a tired blue blazer and wrinkled gray slacks, literally and figuratively ill-suited to the task of being best man.
The next time I saw Bobby was in early September, right before I left for my junior year. He had completed basic and was about to leave for Fort Lewis, Wash. His orders for Vietnam had already come down.
I have tried to remember that meeting, recover its tone and texture, but I have only a vague outline. We talked outside Gasko Pontiac, at the corner of Fifth Street in Mays Landing. His house, where I had spent many a night, was across the street. I was driving a crappy 1965 Ford Comet, which, as always, he gently derided. ("j.m.'s green hornet" was one of the memories he listed in the yearbook.) He was wearing a collared shirt, as befitted a salesman. The day was hot and sticky; it had rained, and there were puddles on the street. I showed him photos of a secret trip I had taken to Cape Cod with my girlfriend (and future wife). She had never met Bobby, and it seemed important that I tell him about her, an attempt to connect the dots of my life. I can't remember what else we talked about. It was all so strange. The man-hug and the hand-grip-chest-bump had not yet been invented, so I'm sure we just shook hands, the friend of my youth and I, and I climbed into my Hornet and drove away. I never saw him again.
BY THE time his unit got its orders for Iraq, Mike Arciola had become one of the most popular soldiers in D Company. He would talk on and on about his beloved New York Yankees and organize stickball games. Just as he had at Hamilton, he drank Kool-Aid by the gallon (Tropical Punch was his flavor) and wore a Kool-Aid baseball cap. Everyone called him the Kool-Aid Kid.
In October 2004 Mike's unit was ordered to Ramadi, attached to the 1st Marine Division. By then many of the insurgents had been driven out of Fallujah, 28 miles to the east, and where they ended up was Ramadi. Almost daily, Mike got shot at—"The joke was, 'I wonder who's going to get hit today,'" says Sgt. James Crowell, who served with Mike—and while on patrol along Highway 10, known to U.S. soldiers as Route Michigan, Mike not only took shots but also likely killed insurgents.
He didn't talk much about those things when he arrived back in Elmsford for a two-week leave on Jan. 14, 2005. He drank beers with his buddies and hung out with Maria. In some respects the kid who came home that January was the same one who had left, but there was a different side to him, "an innocence lost," as Tilokee puts it. Cerone noticed it in Mike's last letters and e-mails. "He never dwelled on the negative," says Cerone, "but he had started to talk about how bad it had gotten over there."
A close friend of Mike's had had his leg blown off in Iraq, and Mike obsessed about it. "He seemed angry and anxious, eager to get back at [the insurgents]," his father said. "Michael was so competitive. I knew he was going to look at war like it was a game he had to win. I swear when I saw him, I thought it was for the last time."
On Jan. 29 Mike's mother, Teresa, and his sisters drove him to LaGuardia Airport in New York City, and as he started toward the Jetway, Teresa pulled out her camera, waiting for him to turn around and wave goodbye, as he always had. This time he didn't. He just kept on going, and she snapped a photo of his back.
IN NOVEMBER 1969, a few days before Bobby was to leave for Vietnam, Janice went into premature labor. Their son, whom they named John Michael, was stillborn. Janice told the doctor she wanted to get pregnant again before her husband left. "Absolutely not," the doctor said. "Your body has to rest."
Barbara, Bobby's sister, drove him to the airport. Janice sat in the middle, Bobby in the passenger seat of the big car, a Pontiac, of course. Since Bobby had gotten his draft notice, Janice said he had never complained, never expressed any fear. His father's unsuccessful efforts to keep him out of the war and the talk about Canada amounted to just that—efforts and talk.
As they drove to the airport, Janice stole glances at Bobby, staring until he looked over and smiled. "I was trying to keep his face in my mind," she says. "I remember thinking, This could be the last time I see him."
I wish I could tell you that I kept Bobby in my mind during that winter of '69. I wish I could tell you that I gave a thought to him as I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner, or that I said a little prayer for him on Christmas. Maybe I did, but I don't remember. I can't even recall what else he said in the one letter he sent me, with the exception of this chilling admonition: Don't come over here. But I no longer have the letter.
I can imagine Bobby sitting back with his pen, helmet by his side, nerves ringing like wind chimes, staring into that dark jungle night, a kid, really, trying to scratch out his feelings and make some kind of connection with those so far away. "Soldiers are dreamers," wrote British war hero and poet Siegfried Sassoon. "When the guns begin/They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives." It had been only eight years since we had sat in our bunks at church camp scrawling on the mandatory postcards we sent to our families.
I spent Dec. 31, 1969, at a New Year's Eve party at my college fraternity house. Bobby spent that last New Year's of his life in a province called Binh Thuan, in Vietnam's southeastern coastal region. I hope he thought for a moment about six kids climbing into his car, racing to Times Square, losing their money, then racing home just to see the New Year's ball drop on TV, as we did as high school seniors. I hope he remembered pulling out the portable tape player we carried around with us and playing What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted, by Jimmy Ruffin, his favorite song. I hope he remembered eyeing that fastball coming toward him, sensing that he had timed it perfectly, then lining it back through the box, feeling that pleasant wooden-bat sting in his hands.
ON FEB. 15, 2005, all four platoons from Dog Company rolled out to patrol an area near Cemetery Street in Ramadi. It was a well-known haven for snipers. Mike, manning a machine gun, was in a Humvee with a driver and a truck commander, facing south. The unit had "strong-pointed," which means that Humvees were pointed in all directions, to provide security for their platoon leader, who was inside a nearby building interviewing Iraqis. It was about four in the afternoon.
Suddenly the familiar pop of sniper fire erupted. Crowell identified the weapon as a Dragunov, a Russian-made sniper rifle with a sound like a whip cracking. Mike ducked into the turret, then stuck his head out again to fire a shot. Crowell—who was in another Humvee facing west, about 30 feet away—remembers hearing four shots, after which he heard a scream: "Somebody get over here and help me! Right now!" He is almost positive that the fourth shot was the one that hit Mike, the bullet entering right behind his nose and into his carotid artery.
Crowell leaped from his vehicle and ran to Mike, as did a staff sergeant named Richard Hall. They sat Mike up. Crowell applied gentle pressure to the carotid artery on the right side of his neck, trying to control the bleeding. Crowell was wearing a pair of Nomex flame-retardant gloves, as he always did when on patrol. The sergeant is fairly certain that Mike was alive for a few moments, but the pulse he felt through the gushing blood grew fainter and fainter. "After about two to three minutes," says Crowell, "I couldn't feel anything."
That night, as his unit quietly mourned the Kool-Aid Kid, Crowell sat by himself and smoked a cigarette. He had been trying to quit, and he lit this one in anger. "I remember thinking, Why take Mike?" says Crowell. "Why take one of the nicest guys on the planet? Why not take me?"
ON NOV. 17, 1969, his first day in Vietnam, Bobby and a soldier named Nolan Cook became instant friends. Their unit—B Company, 1st Battalion, 50th Infantry Regiment—stayed out on missions for days at a time, sleeping in ditches and rice paddies. The jungle was relentlessly wet. When they awoke, they inspected each other for leeches, using lit cigarettes to remove them. In most of his letters Bobby, who was always fastidious about his appearance, mentioned how badly he wanted a shower.
Bobby's squad celebrated Nolan's 21st birthday into the morning hours of Jan. 17, 1970, getting rip-roaring plastered. The following day the squad was informed that another B Company platoon needed an additional soldier for a three- or four-day mission to help guard a trail in the mountains about 20 miles from camp. Bobby volunteered.
As Bobby prepared to leave, he said to Nolan, "If something happens to me, you know where the pictures are." A week earlier Bobby had received a few photos of his wife. He cut a slit in his mattress and stored them there. "Make sure Janice gets these back," Bobby said.
"Nothing's going to happen," Nolan replied. "See you soon."
Sometime around 6 p.m. on Jan. 20 Bobby's squad leader sent him and another soldier out to set mines and guard the trail's perimeter. A couple of other soldiers were deployed nearby. The area was heavy with brush and trees. Darkness was falling. Bobby and his partner were about 75 yards from the squad leader and the rest of the men, hidden from them by a berm.
According to an Army report of the incident, at 6:32 Bobby's squad leader went to search for the two soldiers, whom he was unable to locate. In the dim light he spotted an individual whose movements, investigators wrote, "seemed furtive" and "who appeared to be trying to hide." The squad leader said that he shouted "fire in the hole" three times (a command that says friendly fire is about to commence). Hearing no response, he fired several rounds.
Upon realizing that he had hit Bobby in the chest, the squad leader immediately called for a helicopter. Meanwhile, a medic rushed to Bobby, whose chest was oozing blood. The copter arrived 18 minutes after it was called, fast time considering the remoteness of the area. Bobby was put on a stretcher and taken away. But he was already dead.
Word reached base camp a couple of hours later. The identity of the victim wasn't reported at first. Nolan prayed that it wasn't Bobby. Then the men from the mission returned a few days later, and Nolan and the others gathered in front of their tent. Someone explained what had happened and said it was Bobby who died.
Then, according to Nolan, the squad leader who had shot Bobby spoke. "I'm sorry," he said. "It was my mistake. I'm sorry."
Nolan looked at the squad leader and said, "Watch your back. If you don't, you might not make it out of here alive."
That night, Nolan waited until he was alone before reaching into Bobby's mattress for the photos. He tucked them away in his footlocker. Then he sat down and wrote a letter to Janice Gasko, which he concluded with these words:
I pray the Lord will be with you. I know you lost a great man, for I have lost my best buddy.
P.F.C. Nolan E. Cook
Less than a week after Bobby died, Nolan was transferred out of the company. About a year later, while on leave, Nolan went to New Jersey and gave the photos to Janice. Soldiers did that kind of thing all the time. They still do.
BOBBY AND MIKE
THE DIFFERENCES between Michael Anthony Arciola and Robert John Gasko Jr. are numerous. One enlisted, the other was drafted. One left behind an on-again, off-again girlfriend, the other left behind a widow. One was killed by an enemy sniper, the other by a fellow soldier. One is interred in Arlington, the other in Union Cemetery in Mays Landing, where some of his relatives—and several of mine—are buried.
But what I see are the similarities, the intergenerational link. What binds these two young men, finally, is not the uniqueness of their stories but their commonality. Two kids from small towns. Good athletes. Knew a strike from a ball. Comfortable with themselves. Smart though not particularly motivated as students. Popular and respected. Cheerleaders, young men of positive vibes. A little mischief in their eyes, but loyal and competent in a grown-up kind of way. Tough but somehow ... gentle. At Oakcrest High, the outstanding senior baseball player still receives the Robert J. Gasko Memorial Baseball Scholarship, which has been given for almost four decades, and at Alexander Hamilton High the senior athlete who shows both skill and sportsmanship receives the Michael A. Arciola Memorial Scholarship.
After his son died, Robert Arciola Sr. spent most of his days watching TV in his bedroom. From time to time he would tap out a tune on his Casio. He played by ear, couldn't read a lick of music. My Girl by the Temptations, Mikey's favorite, was the song he played the most. When he thought about his son's Little League days, he said the same thing over and over. We had lots of good nights down there.
There haven't been many since Mike left. "I feel God let me down," said Robert. "I was praying for Mikey every day. And nobody listened. I might as well go now myself. You gotta believe in something, I guess, and I believed in Mikey. Now he's gone."
So, now, is Robert Arciola Sr. He died shortly before 3 a.m. on Aug. 6, four weeks after I visited him. It was the combined effect, say his family members, of diabetes and heartache.
Amanda Arciola is sitting on the steps of Hamilton High, remembering her brother, when I ask her what's changed since he died. "Everything," she says. "The world is ... I don't know ... upside down. It's a great feeling when we go to see him in Arlington—we feel close to him then—but it's a false high. When we come home, reality hits: Michael's gone."
The last time Mikey was home, he playfully jabbed his older brother in the gut. "Hey, getting a little soft there, Rob," he said. Robert glared at him but let it slide.
"Mikey was right, though," Robert says, grinding out a cigarette on the sidewalk in front of Hamilton. Not 10 feet away stands a plaque that was dedicated on June 14, 2005: MICHAEL ARCIOLA MEMORIAL ATHLETIC FIELD. It leads to the soccer field and baseball diamond where Mike spent many hours. "Since he passed, I've gotten back to what I knew," Robert says. "Cut down on the booze, started working out. Mike got me back." Around his neck he wears his brother's dog tags. The tattoo on Robert's left biceps reads all gave SOME, SOME GAVE ALL, a slogan that was first popular back in the Vietnam era.
When not at one of her two jobs, Teresa Arciola spends much of her time preparing packages for the survivors in Mike's unit. It started when she deluged her son with his favorites—PB&J, Snyder's of Hanover pretzels, Gummy Bears, Gatorade and Kool-Aid—and he complained that he got too much and others got too little. So Teresa, Amanda and Casey began sending goodies to his buddies. They have continued after his death, a ritual that helps ease the pain.
Teresa lives in fear of two things—that Mikey will be forgotten when she and her children are gone, and that someone else in her son's unit won't make it home. "I don't know if we could handle that," she says. "They've all become, in a way, my son."
The Arciola family has met most of the guys in the unit, including Sergeant Crowell, who gave Teresa the flame-retardant gloves, dotted with her son's blood, that he was wearing when he tried to save Mike's life. They are among Teresa's most prized possessions, along with the stickball bat signed by a couple dozen of the friends with whom he served. Miss you, Kool-Aid Kid, someone wrote.
Barbara Gasko Aiken, born almost two years before Bobby, is the keeper of her brother's flame. She visits his grave almost every Sunday. Barbara has thought often of moving West, maybe to Wyoming or Montana, but then she thinks, Who would visit Bobby? Who would talk to him?
Barbara Aiken and Amanda Arciola are a lot alike. They lived in their brother's shadows, but they were O.K. with that. Barbara still has "all of Bobby's stuff," she says, including his letter sweater, blue with a big gray O. "Bobby's death tore us apart as a family," Barbara says. "So much ended when Bobby died. I think my mom felt that my father could've done more to keep him out [of the war], and I guess my dad feels the same way. But, really, he tried everything. What more could he have done?"
Bob Gasko Sr. shows the effects of the several strokes he has suffered in the last four years. His head tilts to one side. He sometimes slurs his words. His throat gets parched, and I fetch him Gatorade. But when he latches on to a topic, his mind is sharp. We dance around many subjects—Little League, the retail car business in the '50s and '60s, the development of Mays Landing—before coming to Jan. 20, 1970, the way Bobby died and Bob Sr.'s efforts to find out the truth. He made several inquiries to the Army and his U.S. congressman and finally got a letter from the Department of the Army that officially concluded its investigation three months after Bobby died.
Mr. Gasko (I never called him anything else) takes a sip of his Gatorade. "You know, somewhere in my desk I have the [name] of the [squad leader] who killed Bobby," he says. "For a long time I wanted to go there and, well, maybe kill him because he killed my boy. But I never did. It never got that far." It wasn't until that moment that I grasped the pain this man has suffered, this man who some 50 summers ago coached the Mays Landing Orioles and sold Pontiacs to my parents and was the father of my best friend.
Over the years I had made a couple of efforts to get in touch with Nolan Cook, Bobby's Army buddy, but he hadn't responded. He had been outspoken about what he believes was the carelessness of the squad leader who had shot Bobby, but he had stayed in the service and didn't want controversy.
He's out now, having retired from the Army as a master sergeant in 1993. He still works on a military base (Fort Huachuca in Arizona) but in a civilian capacity, as director of the Army Career Assistance Program (ACAP), which helps returning soldiers find jobs. I knew he had mixed feelings about meeting me, but he finally agreed.
Nolan is smallish but powerful-looking, a dapper man who retains his military bearing. We order lunch at his country club near the base. "Bobby was full of life, full of laughter," he says. "He was always cheerful. Most of us weren't. We didn't want to be there, and it showed. Look, I'm sure Bobby didn't want to be there either—I know he didn't—but he made the best of the situation." That's exactly what Mike Arciola's buddies in Iraq say about him.
I ask gingerly if Bobby made any mistake that led to his death. "They say the first 90 days is when you are in the most danger," Nolan says finally. "Statistics bear that out. You don't learn jungle combat in basic training. Bobby was brave and a great soldier, but he didn't have jungle training, like I had before I went over. The one thing we know is that he took his helmet off. Why? Who knows? But, yes, that was a mistake. And I always felt if I'd been there, I would've made a difference."
Tears fill Nolan's eyes, and I think about saying something conciliatory but don't have the words. Our lunches have grown cold, and I rise to leave.
"You know, last night, for the first time, I showed my wife photos of Bobby and me in Vietnam," Nolan says. "I never even talked about it with her. But suddenly it all came out, all the stuff I had held back about Bobby. She said, 'Nolan, is Bob dying the reason you never had any friends?'"
"Is that true?" I ask.
"For sure," he says. "I never had a real friend since Bob. Never. No one I was close to, no one I could talk to."
He senses what I'm thinking. "I know I didn't know Bob for very long," he says, "but it seemed like forever. I have six sisters, no brothers. There was no male friend I got close to in school. Then I go to Vietnam, and suddenly I meet Bob and everything changes. We were so close. We talked and laughed and shared stuff every minute over there. The whole thing—him living and him dying—it's just so fresh in my memory, like it happened yesterday. I told my wife, 'I guess you're right. I lost one best friend, and I'm not losing another.'"
We're standing at my rental car now, lost in thought and trying to figure out how to say goodbye. For all the stuff Bobby and I went through together, I never searched his body for leeches or crawled with him through fetid water or stood next to him, still as chess pieces, peering into jungle darkness, so scared that we could piss fear. There we were, Nolan and I, one who had gone and one who had stayed behind, part of an ever-growing universe of grievers. And there, too, were Bobby Gasko and Mike Arciola and a whole bunch of other kids with level swings and big hearts and fire in their eyes who died too young.