RICHMOND, Va. -- Ron Echols and Mike Bonacci know a lot about the Marines. As docents at the National Museum of the Marine Corps they’re full of knowledge.
Not by studying, but firsthand experience.
“He and I became good buddies," said Ron. “Practically everyone in our platoon was 18, 19 or 20. We were old men. We were in our 20s."
The men served side by side in Vietnam in the same platoon.
“Marines are fighting for each other in those foxholes," said Mike.
Sgt. Echols and Lt. Bonacci immediately took a liking to each other.
“He had his pulse on the platoon," recalled Mike. "He knew what was going on in terms of personnel matters than I did.”
But their bond was broken three months into their friendship.
“It was December 8 of ’67,” Mike remembered.
“Mike was up at the front of the column and there was an explosion and smoke and dirt," said Ron. "I got on the radio and asked, ‘Who was that?’”
Mike walked into a booby trap.
“I actually thought his foot was gone. Because it was a bloody mess," said Ron.
Shrapnel tore into the then 23-year-old. The brush with death ended Mike’s tour. Before a helicopter whisked Mike away, he handed Ron his watch.
“I was leaving and I knew I wasn’t coming back," said Mike. "It was leaving something behind I guess. And I knew Ron appreciated it. I wanted him to have it.”
“I said I don’t want your watch. He said I won’t need it when I’m in the hospital. You keep it," said Ron. “I said I’ll give it back next time I see you.”
Ron survived many months under fire. Mike would make a full recovery.
The close friends lost touch. Years would pass. But Ron always remained curious. An internet search would lead the Midlothian man to Mike.
“I couldn’t believe we were 50 miles apart," said Ron. "He’s in Fredericksburg and I’m in Richmond!”
Mike was stunned.
“Until he called me, I had no idea he was still alive," Mike stated.
“Oh, it’s fabulous," said Ron. "I saw him shook his hand and hugged him.”
The pair reunited the next day at the museum where Ron volunteered. Mike would soon join him on staff. But Ron had a surprise. He needed to return a favor.
Ron replaced Mike's watch with a timepiece emblazoned with the United States Marine Corps emblem. The original was lost long ago.
“In my mind I did owe him a watch," Ron explained.
Ron's gesture touched his battle hardened fellow-Marine.
“It’s now become part of my duty uniform here at the museum," said Mike.
Now that Mike and Ron are reunited. The watch will come in handy as the two Marines catch up on lost time.
“The camaraderie is nothing like it. Nothing like it," said Ron. “I think it is great. I have a friend here. These other people who work here are acquaintances, but I didn’t serve in combat with them. They’re not my brother. Mike is.”
The National Museum of the Marine Corps has closed during the coronavirus outbreak which means Ron and Mike's duties as docents have been suspended temporarily. But Mike and Ron still maintain their friendship through phone calls and emails.
Greg McQuade features local heroes in a weekly “Heroes Among Us” segment. Watch Greg’s reports Thursdays on CBS News at 6 or here on WTVR.com. If you would like to nominate someone to be featured on “Heroes Among Us,” click here to email email@example.com.
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