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A story of friendship that began in Vietnam

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Submitted Photo Tom Baca (left) and Jack Swickard in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Las Cruces in 2016. Baca and Swickard were there to speak at the dedication of the UH-1 Huey helicopter seen here on its pedestal in the background.

By Jack Swickard

Special to the Daily Record

When my cellphone rang Sunday morning, my stomach felt like it dropped 3 feet. Tom Horan’s name was on caller ID.

Tom told me our close friend, Tom Baca, had died early that morning. Though Tom Baca had been doing well when I visited with him on FaceTime several weeks earlier, I knew Tom Horan was calling to tell me he had died.

The two Toms had known each other since grade school. Years later, Army Warrant Officer Tom Baca had given Army Lt. Tom Horan his first orientation ride in a helicopter.

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Tom Horan went on to become a scout helicopter pilot in South Vietnam (during the Vietnam War — the U.S. involvement in the war started in 1954 and ended in 1973. The war ended with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.)

That’s where Tom Baca and I met — in Vietnam, under unique circumstances stemming from a misunderstanding.

Before I joined the Army, I had worked as a reporter for The Albuquerque Tribune. One of the television reporters covering the news with me on the Albuquerque police beat in 1965 was Jim Baca.

Later that year, I enlisted in the Army. After basic training and helicopter flight school, I flew to South Vietnam.

After signing in at the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, I went to the officers’ club. I was surprised to see a familiar face at one of the tables.

“Jim, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m not Jim. He’s my twin brother,” came the reply. “I’m Tom Baca.”

This began a close friendship, beginning in February 1967 and lasting until Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020.

Over this 53-year friendship, Tom and I drank martinis together in London, Saigon, Hanoi, Shanghai, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, Charlotte and many other cities. Tom enjoyed martinis with friends; I enjoyed martinis with Tom.

We were alike in many ways. Like Tom, I had a twin brother. We bought our first hybrid cars within days of each other. We were hooked on high-tech gadgets.

Tom and I had our differences, too, mainly political. We adopted a simple rule: Never discuss politics.

In a lounge at the Hotel Caravelle Saigon in 2008, the wife of a mutual friend started attacking a president whom I liked. Tom immediately shut down the criticism. “Jack and I have a rule, we don’t discuss politics. I’d appreciate it if you would honor this,” he told her. She did.

It was Tom who coaxed me into returning to Vietnam 40 years after I returned from my combat tour in 1967-68. I had planned to go someday, but kept putting it off.

However, Richard Max, director of a planned documentary about a rescue mission Tom and I flew with our aircrews in May 1967, came to Tom’s home for an initial visit with us. Tom told Richard he planned to visit southern Vietnam in October 2008.

“You should come, too,” Tom told me.

I agreed and Richard said it would be a good opportunity to get footage of us in the landing zone where we had pulled off the rescue.

The filming went great. Richard and his colleagues at Windfall Films had to work over the holidays to put the documentary together in time for its television debut, but they were finished in time for a special screening in January 2009. Tom, his copilot Larry Liss, myself and our wives traveled to London for the screening.

The government advisor to the Windfall Films crew was a former member of the People’s Army — known to GIs as the North Vietnam Army. Dinh Ngoc Truc, who worked for the Ministry of Culture and Information, turned out to be a really great guy.

He became a close friend, and would stay with Tom in Albuquerque and me in Roswell on trips to the United States. His wife Phuong joined him on one trip, and taught Jan Baca and Renee Swickard the fine points of Vietnamese cooking.

Over the years, Tom, Truc and I would organize trips to Vietnam, taking along other veterans of the war. It was great therapy for anyone with a lingering sense of uneasiness about their war years.

Tom was unfailingly kind. He had been stricken with multiple sclerosis, but was able to keep it at bay. Tom told me many times, “if you know someone with MS, tell them I can come and visit them. I can tell them it’s not the end of the world.”

At lunch one day in an Albuquerque restaurant, I saw Tom call over the waitress and point to two police officers at another table. “Give me their bill. I want to pay for their lunch.”

This was typical of Tom.

Another time, a friend, retired Lt. Gen. Richard T. Knowles, died. Dick had gone to Vietnam as deputy commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and many years later settled in Roswell, where he became my state representative in the New Mexico Legislature.

Dick’s son called me and asked if I would like to sort through his papers, plaques and trophies. I called Tom. “I have a job for you. Can you help me sort through Dick Knowles’ memorabilia?”

Tom was at my home the next day.

We spent two days sorting the memorabilia into separate boxes to present to military museums around the United States. Then we took a road trip and donated them.

Most of the items went to The Vietnam Center & Sam Johnson Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University. It’s the second-largest Vietnam War archive in the United States, behind the National Archives.

Tom was liked by everyone he met because he was so comfortable to be around.

I’ll really miss Tom.

Jack Swickard served in the Vietnam War as an Army aviator with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company, Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. After leaving active military duty, he served as editor and general manager of daily newspapers in Roswell and Farmington. Swickard later founded The Triton Group, a public relations consulting company headquartered in Roswell.

For more information, visit swickardworld.blogspot.com.