PALM COAST — They wanted the picture to be just right, to look as close as possible to the one they’d taken together 50 years ago, back when their memories hadn’t yet been clouded by the images of war.
So Saturday morning, on the sun-drenched Atlantic shore of Cinnamon Beach on Florida’s northeast coast, four U.S. Marine veterans gathered around a yellow longboard turned upright, trying to recreate a moment from five decades earlier.
Bob Falk, 71, wearing a mirror-image blue-and-white striped shirt, leaned against the longboard’s left side, resting his spare hand on his hip.
Dennis Puleo, 69, removed his shoes, revealing the feet scarred by shrapnel, and pulled off his shirt, flanking the longboard on the right, mugging a wide smile for the camera with his arms extended.
Tom Hanks (not that one), 69, stepped in front of the board and took in a long, deep breath, flexing his still-thick upper chest and sucking in his now-paunchy belly.
Finally, Bob DeVenezia, 70, crouched down in front of Hanks, resting his elbows on his knobby knees, feeling Hanks’ hands placed on his back.
The picture couldn’t be a perfect copy. They had gray hair and wrinkled skin and undefined stomachs now. But it didn’t matter.
For the first time in five decades, they were together, trying to get it right.
DeVenezia sat at the kitchen table in his East Naples condominium last week, trying to explain why it’d been 50 years since he’d been in the same room as three of his closest Marine Corps friends. He became quiet for a second, searching for the right words.
“We just broke up,” DeVenezia said. “Life is funny like that. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them. There was something about the Vietnam War and the negativity we kept hearing.”
In 1966, the four U.S. Marines were stationed together in Camp Pendleton, outside San Diego. The Vietnam War was ramping up, and together, they were part of a weapons platoon — three machine gunners and one anti-tank man — getting ready to ship off to East Asia.
Over the next two years, they’d train together and deploy together. Once in Vietnam, they’d separate, enduring many of the same horrendous conditions, if not the same action. Two of them would earn Purple Hearts. Each would experience the unexplainable fear of war.
“We had the tools. We had the training,” DeVenezia said. “But nothing trains you for your first combat. Nothing. Zero.”
And then, once their tours were over, each lasting no more than 13 months, they went their own ways.
They would all build successful careers — DeVenezia in construction in New Jersey; Falk in retail management in Florida; Hanks in investment banking in Atlanta; Puleo in home security, some in the Northeast and some in Florida. They would all marry — a couple of them twice — and raise six children among them.
For a long time, they didn’t plan to reunite. Their lives had diverged so dramatically, and the public’s resentment of the war soured them on the potential camaraderie.
“I was too wrapped up in having a good time at first. Then I got married and had a kid,” Falk said. “Now that I’ve retired, I’ve had a lot more time to think back on it.”
About five years ago, Falk stumbled across an online memorial that Hanks created for a fallen comrade they all knew. That started a chain of events that put the four back in touch.
For a while, the four would reunite in fits and starts, a few gathering at a time, but never all at once.
Then, when Hanks was flipping through an old photo album, he spotted a picture of the four together on a beach as young Marines. It had been nearly 50 years since the photograph was taken.
He got an idea.