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March 1, 2024

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Vietnam soldiers linked by name, more

Only one returned from war, but new bonds have formed

3 Photos
U.S. Army veteran George Michael Taylor smiles after cracking a joke during a Veteran&Ccedil;&fnof;&Ugrave;s Day program at the Snohomish Senior Center on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Snohomish, Washington.
U.S. Army veteran George Michael Taylor smiles after cracking a joke during a VeteranǃÙs Day program at the Snohomish Senior Center on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, in Snohomish, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald) (Ryan Berry/The Herald) Photo Gallery

EVERETT — Lori Oncina got the call while she was at work.

She didn’t pick up, but the voicemail caught her attention. The caller was asking about her brother, George Michael Taylor.

More than half a century earlier, the soldier from Kent was killed serving in Vietnam. Oncina, who had been very close with her brother, was just 14 at the time.

Intrigued, she phoned the caller back.

“My name is George Michael Taylor,” she remembers him saying. “And this isn’t a hoax.”

Nearly 60 years ago, two George Michael Taylors left their homes in the Seattle area to serve in a war halfway across the globe.

Only one came back. He was the person on the other end of the line that day, six or seven years ago. Since then, the two families have formed a friendship bonded by sheer coincidence.

Taylor, now 79, grew up in north Seattle. He was drafted within a month of his graduation from the University of Washington in 1966. His college degree in business administration got him assigned to a data-processing unit in Vietnam.

One day while working with lists of soldiers who had been killed, he saw his own name. First, middle, last — all the same.

It was a shock not just for Taylor but also for his family back home. His parents saw the obituary in The Seattle Times under the headline: “G.M. Taylor, Vietnam Casualty.” They called Taylor’s then-fiancee, Josie, to make sure she didn’t get scared.

“She says she never came so close to fainting in all of her life,” Taylor said.

The pair married in 1968 upon Taylor’s return from Vietnam. They raised two daughters and moved across the country several times. They live in Everett now.

Every so often, he’d think about the other George Michael Taylor.

“I had a desire to contact the family,” Taylor said. “But I didn’t know what I would say to them.”

He worried they would think it was some kind of scam, or that hearing from him would reopen old wounds.

That fear wasn’t unfounded. When Oncina told family members about the phone call, they warned her it was a trick.

“How dare he use your brother’s death,” she remembers they said.

Despite their caution, Oncina believed Taylor. Too much of his story rang true.

‘You just went to fight’

His name is a reminder of someone she loved deeply.

Her George Michael Taylor, who went by Mike, was “the lover” in their family, Oncina said.

He loved animals, for one thing. He adopted a bullfrog as a pet and kept it alive for three years, she said, diligently fishing tadpoles out of a pond to feed it. During winter freezes, he’d take it inside and keep it in the bathtub.

He loved people, too.

“No one could have ever harmed me,” Oncina said. “Mike would have not been pleased with that.”

One day, a family moved in next door to the Taylors at their home in Kent. Oncina immediately befriended the new neighbor girl, named Sue.

At the dinner table that night, she announced she had a new friend.

Mike had news, too. A beautiful girl had just moved in next door, he said, named Beverly.

Her name, it turned out, was Beverly Sue.

For Mike, “it was really just love at first sight,” Oncina said.

For Beverly Sue, too.

“I loved him since the first second I saw him,” she told the Herald via text.

Oncina and her other brother used to help Mike sneak out for a few hours in the evenings to see her.

Eventually, the teenage couple married. They had a son.

“He had dreams of what life would be like for our family,” said Beverly Sue, who asked to be identified by her given name only. “He was much older and wiser than his age.”

At 17, Mike enlisted in the Army. His father had served in World War II.

“That’s just what you did,” Oncina said, “was you just went to fight for your country.”

Mike left for Vietnam in November 1966. Six months later, he was killed by a mortar shell explosion.

He was 12 days shy of his 19th birthday.

At home, his wife was pregnant with their second child.

The memory of that time is a painful one for Oncina — not just her own pain but that of her parents and Sue.

In the decades after, she was never interested in learning more about the war. When friends suggested going to see Vietnam War movies, she declined.

But when she talked to the living George Michael Taylor, she found she wanted to know more for the first time.

“It doesn’t make it any less painful,” she said.

But it has been comforting to understand more about the last place her brother was.

“I feel now like that has come full circle,” Oncina said.

They met in person for the first time at Oncina’s house with some of her immediate family members.

Taylor gifted them rubbings of Mike’s name on the Vietnam Wall, superimposed on a picture of him.

“It was special,” Taylor said.

The families have kept in touch ever since.

‘You can’t forget’

During the war, there were “protests all the time,” said Taylor’s wife, Josie. “And I can’t say that I didn’t want to be on I-5 marching with everybody else. It wasn’t a popular war.”

Veterans of the Vietnam War were often looked down on. When Taylor returned, he rarely spoke of his experience there. He remembers going to a party shortly after coming home where a man was talking about “the jerks that went” to Vietnam.

“I just looked at him,” Taylor said. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, you’re talking about me.’”

Even in recent years, Oncina, too, has felt indifference from people she talks to about the lives lost in the war.

“It’s almost like, because it was such a distasteful time, or distasteful war, that nothing about it was of any interest,” she said.

She wants people to recognize that beyond the politics of the war is human loss. Many, like Taylor, had no choice but to go.

Though Taylor came home alive, there were close calls. Once, Claymore mine explosions killed three Americans taking the same route to work he normally would have. He was spared because it was his day off.

Another time, a child tried to slash his wrist as he walked down the street in Saigon.

“Things happened that you can’t forget,” he said. “And you just live with them.”

The war left a physical mark on him as well. Taylor was exposed to Agent Orange during his service. In the years since, he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, Parkinson’s disease and ischemic heart disease, all of which have been connected to Agent Orange exposure.

Meeting Mike’s family “has softened the blow that Vietnam had on me,” Taylor told an audience gathered at the Snohomish Senior Center for a Veterans Day commemoration earlier this month.

A number of Mike’s family members came to attend the speech, including his wife, his two children and Oncina. It was their first time meeting Taylor’s daughters, which was “amazing,” Oncina said.

The bond she’s formed with Taylor and his wife has been a lasting one.

“They’re two of the most lovely human beings,” she said. “Whether or not this had to do with my brother, I still would very much want to have them in my family.”