I had a special guest speak to the students on Wednesday night. I won’t mention his name here because when I spoke well of him on Wednesday, he smiled, shook my hand, and whispered, “I’ll get you for that” – so this post probably won’t make him too happy either. I’m going to share one of the stories that he told the kids, and it’s a story of heroism, valor, and why you should thank any service man or woman you come into contact with today.
For clarity’s sake, I’ll call the man “Top.”
Top was drafted into the Army in 1962, just as Vietnam was about to get big. He bounced from heavy equipment duty to demolitions, and it was that specialty – the ability to disarm bombs (or build them) – that carried him over the Pacific in ’63 (I’m typing without my notes, so if I mess up a detail, please forgive me). After some bad luck on the seas, his unit – 172 strong – were disgorged onto the coastline of Vietnam and given the task of teaching the resistance how to strategically blow up bridges and other infrastructure crucial to the Viet Cong regime.
It wasn’t too long, however, before Top and his crew found themselves cleaning up messes – like mines, US ordinance that hadn’t detonated, and even the heinous task of tunnel ratting: going down into a VC tunnel with a .45 and a knife and checking to see if it was occupied. Assignments like those took Top’s unit from 172 men down to 41 over the course of their stay in country.
Top was a sergeant, which meant that he was the middle man in Vietnam. He would go between the commanding officers and the men in the fields, doing his best to solve problems coming from both directions. As he told the kids, it made him tough; made him realize that the difference between office and leadership was found within the character of the man. Top quickly became a leader, and brought home the wounds and medals to prove it.
His first Purple Heart was given to him when he was shot in the leg while carrying a wounded soldier to MEDEVAC. The bullet caught him in the calf. They sewed him up and sent him back out.
His second Purple Heart came when a sniper shot him in the left shoulder one day during a duty run. “They say you can hear the sound of the weapon that ends your life,” he told the kids on Wednesday. “Well, I certainly heard this one. The bullet came and caught me in my shoulder, and sent me flying five feet forward through the air. They pulled me aside, checked out my shoulder, and put a butterfly dressing on it. I went back into the field that afternoon.”
But his third Purple Heart came during an action for which he also won a Bronze Star with Valor. Top and some of his men were in a rice paddy, pinned down by gunfire coming from a farmhouse not too far away. Six Viet Cong troops were positioned in the house, and the only viable front for attack was assault from Top’s position. Between the house and the trench where Top and his men were located was nothing but rice paddy, a murky, watery expanse that offered no cover whatsoever. So Top and his men were waiting for reinforcements– “We were waiting for the tanks to come and, pardon my French, blow the hell out of that farmhouse.”
The story gets better, but it’s not Top’s to tell. “I can’t honestly tell you what happened, because I don’t remember any of it. Alls I know is one of my men came to me and said, ‘Sarge, can I have a cigarette?’ And the next thing I can remember, I was holding that man’s face in my hands and my back was hamburger.”
According to the paperwork filed for his Bronze Star, Top and eight other men charged that farmhouse. Why they chose to do so is not made clear, but nine brave soldiers took the fight across a watery graveyard and were successful. They made it to the house and secured it, putting down all six of the Viet Cong guerillas inside. According to the report, the suicide mission saved 32 lives that day.
If this were a Hollywood story, the camera would pan across the brave soldiers’ faces and they would smile and have a smoke as their helicopter lifted off and circled around the captured farmhouse. We would catch a glint of the setting sun on the paddy waters and the camera would fade to black.
But this isn’t a Hollywood story.
After Top and his men had rushed the house and seemingly secured it, one of the VC soldiers was able to pull the pin on a grenade and send it rolling between Top and his men. Top took most of the shrapnel – he spent six months in a hospital receiving skin grafts and sleeping on his stomach; to this day, three pieces of the shrapnel from that grenade still reside in his back, too dangerous to remove. The only fragment of memory he has is of lying on the Vietnamese soil, in agony, holding the face of that soldier who’d asked for what turned out to be his last smoke.
Top was able to recover, and retired from the Army after 27 years of honorable service. Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned home to a life that had moved on without him – a nation that wasn’t proud of his service, and a wife who’d been unwilling to wait on him. Alone and hurting, he found it difficult to cope.
“I wouldn’t talk about what happened,” he told the kids. “I bottled it up inside, and then tried to forget about it by emptying the wrong kind of bottle.”
He ended up getting help and was encouraged by a doctor to talk about his experiences, to get the emotions and the images out and into the air as a way of healing his soul. The doctor also encouraged him to go to church, and in doing so, Top found peace and forgiveness and the permission to move forward with his life. He was able to remarry. He was able to live.
Top shared more of his story than this, and he shared it with such humble honesty that I can say for certain not one of the students moved while he spoke. They listened, rapt, as Top shared from his heart a story that, if he didn’t tell it, would simply fade into oblivion in a government file cabinet somewhere. By telling the kids, he gave life to not only his story, but the story of every soldier.
It’s one thing for us to celebrate Veteran’s Day – it’s right and good that we do so, because we demand so much from those men and women who volunteer to put on the uniform and charge into whatever mess we the people (or at least our government) deem worthy of our might. But celebrating a day with nice Facebook updates or patriotic flag waving doesn’t do justice to the soldiers themselves; I don’t presume to speak for them, so please don’t take these words as their own, but to me, it is a little hollow to speak of Veterans in some vague, collective sense.
Instead, do yourself the honor of meeting one of these men and women up close. Personal. Ask them about their story. Ask them about the price they paid to give you freedom. And then shake their hand and tell them, from the bottom of a broken and grateful heart, that you thank them for your freedom.
I think about Top today – along with Mark Allen, Karl Johnson, Brannen Murphy, David Brown, David Evans and other good men and women I know who wear the uniform of our military services with pride and honor, never asking for anything in return. Never demanding their rights or freedoms. Never protesting the places or people we ask them to fight on our behalf. They take the risk of their own life and the lives of people who are near and dear to them through the brotherhood of service and do so because they hold the ideals and hopes of this nation as more worthy than those of their own.
Today, I am grateful to tears for each of your service. Little or small, past or present, you have given me – our nation – so much. Today, if you read these 1400 words, I hope you only continually hear these two:
And God bless.