KENNEWICK -- Fred Gerace knew Marine Lance Cpl. Robert J. Cope of Kennewick barely six months, but Vietnam buddies never forget each other.
Separated by death on the battlefield 43 years ago, then-Marine Cpl. Gerace couldn't accept that 20-year-old Cope left behind a young wife somewhere in Washington and a baby girl he never would get to hold.
All that changed in a moment Friday at the Tri-Cities Airport as Gerace and his wife, Nancy, entered the terminal lobby to be met by now 44-year-old Brenda Cope-Erwin and her mother, Paula Rutherford, Cope's widow who remarried.
"Hi, baby," Gerace said softly as he greeted his buddy's daughter and kissed her on the forehead. Brenda, with five children of her own holding U.S. flags and red, white and blue balloons, folded into his hug.
It was a long embrace that reached back to April 19, 1967.
Gerace and Cope were in a platoon of the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marines that was on a search and destroy mission when they encountered enemy fire. Cope was one of the first casualties and, as radio man, Gerace made urgent calls for the medical evacuation helicopter.
"Get down here. We have to get him out. He's got a baby daughter he's never seen.
... Don't worry. I'm going to get you out of here ..."
That's how Brenda says Gerace pleaded for a rescue ship as he reassured her father that help was on the way.
The helicopter did arrive, but not before Cope died as Gerace cradled his friend's body in his lap.
Brenda said Gerace is her hero. "I feel (he) fulfilled the promise to get my dad home. I think coming here is bringing some healing for him," she said.
Gerace, 63, of Union City, Calif., is retired from a telecommunications career in the Bay Area. His wife Nancy said he kept the war experience a personal one, refusing to share it even with his sons as they grew up.
But he couldn't get that memory of a baby girl and young wife left alone out of his mind.
"It disturbed him that Cope never got to see his child," Nancy Gerace said.
But Gerace finally admitted that connecting with Cope's widow and daughter was something he needed to do before he died. "It was on his bucket list before there was a 'Bucket List'," his wife said.
But the Geraces had no idea where Cope's family was from, and they were clueless about Brenda and Paula's names, assuming they had married and moved on with their lives.
One of their two sons, Steve Gerace, took on the challenge. He used the internet to find news stories about Cope's death and about his family living in the Tri-Cities. Eventually his search led to Paula Rutherford's family name and the family business, Northwest Rentals, which then was operated by Virgil Rose.
An e-mail to the business, which had been sold, was passed along to Eagle Assisted Living Facility in Richland, where Rose spent his final days. Eagle contacted Rutherford.
"We responded to the e-mail and then we got a letter with pictures," Rutherford said.
The first contact between Gerace and Brenda and her mother was a phone call on Father's Day last year.
"Fred sounded nervous, emotional and anxious. He said, 'I can't believe this day has come,' " Cope-Erwin said.
Gerace said he wasn't sure about making contact. "I didn't want to feel like I was intruding," he said.
Gerace began revisiting the war memories that had been stuffed into his subconscious.
For the first time in four decades, the former Marine decided to attend a reunion of his combat unit last November in Washington, D.C. He wanted to find out more about how to find his fellow soldiers after being out of touch for four decades.
While there, someone encouraged him to be screened for post-traumatic stress disorder. Gerace agreed, believing he had done pretty well in overcoming the effects of his war experiences.
"They said any score over 100 would be a serious case. I figured I would be about a 32. Turned out I was 118," he said.
"So I joined a class. This is part of the journey," he said Friday.
Nancy Gerace embraced Paula Rutherford at the airport and shared a woman-to-woman moment.
"Thank you for bringing Fred," Rutherford said as she gave her a squeeze.
Later, at Union Street Cemetery, Gerace put on his Marine Corps ballcap with service pins as he joined Rutherford, Cope-Erwin, her children and her husband, Eric Erwin, to pay respects at Lance Cpl. Cope's grave.
The family circled around the bronze marker with April 19, 1967, cast on top, then prayed.
"Because of him we are all here today," said Nancy Gerace.
"What amazes me is I only knew him six months," her husband said softly, holding hands with Brenda.
Forty-three years earlier, Marine Cpl. Gerace held onto his buddy until the very end.
On Friday it was as if he never let go.