Sunday, January 16, 2011

A question answered

I had asked the question of my friend some 30-plus years ago.
“Oh, just a little hand-to-hand,” he responded and said no more.
He had been one of only two people in our field who had been awarded the Silver Star for action in Vietnam. And, as with most people who receive awards for heroism in combat, he was not willing to talk about it — until last week.
The Silver Star is the third highest medal given for heroism and may be awarded to any person who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. armed forces, distinguishes himself or herself by extraordinary heroism.
“Vietnam, huh?” he responded to my question.
“Only if you want to,” I answered.
He paused for quite a while before he began. He had been in country for four weeks, stationed at Pleiku. His unit supported Special Forces bases by responding to calls for destruction of unexploded ordnance and booby traps. A Special Forces camp had been attacked by North Vietnamese and needed help removing unexploded rounds.
They flew in, he and his NCO, the camp still receiving fire, he told me. The pilot told them he couldn’t land but would get about 10-feet above the ground. They would have to kick out their equipment and drop to the ground.
“The ground was covered in body parts,” he reflected, his eyes focusing on that faraway place.
They made their way to the command post to find that only seven Americans were still alive. The rest were South Vietnamese, some Montagnards.
They continued to receive fire for two weeks.
He said he was in a mortar hole when the Special Forces lieutenant said he and his team were going to the top of a hill to their right. When it was secure, the lieutenant said he would fire a green flare and they could follow.
“I could see green tracers coming across from the hill to the left,” he recalled, his voice subdued.
When the men stood to move forward, machine guns opened up from several directions, killing three men immediately.
“I looked around and the Vietnamese were all hiding behind sand bags,” he said. “I slapped one up side the head, grabbed his M-60 (machine gun) and some ammo.”
His voice began to break and he struggled to control his emotions as he relived that day so long ago. It was the first time in over 30 years I had seen him struggle so — it broke my heart.
“At the end there were 70 dead,” he said quietly, adding that they were men, like him, doing for their country what he was doing for his.
“I didn’t want the Silver Star,” he said. “I told my captain I didn’t want it.”
Special Forces had nominated him for the award and his commander convinced him to take the few minutes to accept it.
“Have you ever talked about this before?” I asked.
“No,” he said almost inaudibly, nearly sobbing.
I know he didn’t tell me everything that happened that day, but he told me all he could.
Nor has he forgotten returning and the people at Seattle who spit on him as he came home from a war he did not start but one in which he served his country.
He has spent his life serving his nation, continuing even after retiring from the U.S. Army — no bitterness, just the memories of a man who asked for nothing yet gave so much.
Including his name is not important — it is but one story of courage — like so many more rememberances of veterans who still struggle with the memories of a time long past, yet the events remain so fresh.
There are heroes among us, those who give their all for their comrades and their country. Their stories often go untold, their deeds forgotten by others. But their memories of the horrors of war linger long after the ceremonies and honors they so richly deserve.
God bless them one and all and may they find his peace.

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