Cumberland Times-News

Columns

June 1, 2013

The look in his eyes would still be the same

Here is an edited-for-length version of my speech at the Memorial Day ceremony held by Fort Cumberland Post 13, American Legion:

Hanging on one wall of the social quarters at Cumberland Chapter 172 of the Vietnam Veterans of America is what we call “The Grunt Print.” Its proper title is “God Bless the Grunt.” Hanging elsewhere is the definition of a grunt:

Grunt: Term of affection used to denote that filthy, sweaty, dirt-encrusted, foot-sore, camouflage-painted, ripped-trousered, sleepy, beautiful little son of a b**** who has kept the wolf away from the door for over 200 years.

The subject of The Grunt Print is a Vietnam-era grunt who is propped up on one elbow. He is covered with, and surrounded by, what must be hundreds of signatures of other grunts and the names of their units.

The first thing you notice is the grunt’s eyes. They’re wide open and vacant, like he’s staring at nothing ... or at something nobody else can see — what they call “The Thousand-Yard Stare.” I’ve seen the same stare in the eyes of living human beings.

The vintage of his uniform does not matter. You could put him in any of the uniforms American service members have worn throughout our history. The eyes would still be the same.

Many men who went to Vietnam have told me I should thank God I did not have to go. They’re right, but I don’t know that I will ever completely agree with them.

Some have told me a bit of what it was like, without my asking ... and I never ask. Why they do this, I don’t know. Maybe it’s because they know I care, and they know I will listen without interrupting them with stupid comments or questions. They often tell me it helps them to talk. Now and then, I tell them it helps me, to be able to listen.

I’ve heard what it’s like to kill another man for the first time, what it feels like to have a bullet hit you in the thigh and tumble all the way down to your foot, and to hold your best buddy in your arms as he bleeds to death ... and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Twice now, I have watched another man die. One was a cousin I could not have loved more if he were my own brother. It’s the most helpless feeling you can have. All you can do is pray.

You do not have to be on the ground to be a grunt. Another friend is going to die because of exposure to the Agent Orange the Navy says his ship never carried.

It also also carried enough fuel and munitions to produce an explosion that might rival the one that leveled Hiroshima.

They were radioed that four MiGs were headed toward his ship. The MiGs were shot down, but two of the Navy fighters that intercepted them were lost, and some of the crew members were killed. He said that for as long as he lives, he will remember the men who died to save him and his shipmates.

A lieutenant who probably was a relative of mine was directly responsible for keeping a number of his men alive in Vietnam. One told me he owed his life to that man, and he said there were others who felt the same way.

On New Year’s Day more than 30 years ago, alone and convinced that his life had meant nothing and nobody cared about him, he hanged himself. I will forever wish that I’d had at least one chance to talk to him, to try to convince him he was wrong ... to tell him that I cared, and so did others.

One of my younger co-workers at the newspaper said the other day said he wished the North Koreans would start something, so we could finally finish it.

I kept my mouth shut, but thought to myself: “Spoken like a man who’s never been shot at,’ ... which I have, twice, and close enough to hear the bullets going by.

God help him if some of my buddies who went there and did that had been around to hear him. Nobody hates war more than somebody who has been in the middle of one, and they have. That said, most of them would go again in a minute, if it were to defend the freedom of America itself. I would go with them.

As it says on the Korean War Memorial, Freedom Is Not Free. America and its people are free today because of our grunts, and so are millions of other people around the world.

It doesn’t take much effort to tell a veteran he is appreciated.

I say “Welcome Home” to Vietnam Veterans and give them one of these Chapter 172 Welcome Home coins. Some look like they’re about to cry. Some say, “In all these years, you’re the first person who’s ever told me that.” What a shame, that is.

I thank Korean War veterans for what they did and tell them they are by no means forgotten. A small country on the other side of the world is free because of them.

I knelt in front of a World War II veteran in a wheelchair, took off my hat and said, “God bless you, sir. Thank you for my freedom.” He put his arms around my neck and hugged me. I will never forget that ... or the way the younger woman who was with him looked at me. Maybe his daughter or granddaughter. ... someone who loved him ... just as I loved him.

My buddies who survived Vietnam do the same thing when they have the chance ... in large part, I suspect, because of the despicable way most of them were treated when they came home. Nobody understands the concept of gratitude more than they do, so they share their gratitude every chance they get.

The reactions we get inspire us to keep on doing it, and it’s the right thing to do. All things considered, it’s the least we can do for someone we owe a debt that never can be repaid.

And don’t ever forget those who’ve been to Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else on our behalf, or who are serving today. They’re preserving our freedom.

When I recently made my fifth trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I took a list of names to visit: Jim Bosley was an Army helicopter pilot who flew rescue missions. Craig Haines was a Navy crewman on a riverboat. Grady Cooke was an Air Force loadmaster on a cargo plane and was Missing In Action for 34 years. Sam Umstot was an Army physician’s assistant who was killed while trying to save a wounded soldier. Wendell Brown was the pilot of an Army observation plane. Bobby Taylor was a United States Marine.

Jim and Craig were the only two I ever met, but I have personal reasons to remember each one. I renewed my promise to them, and to others whose names are not on The Wall, but should be ... because in one way or another, that war killed them, too: For long as I live, I will keep reminding people about you.

If you’re a veteran, thank you for MY freedom.

On occasions like this, we like to say, “God Bless America.” There are three other words we always should add to that: “Lest We Forget.”

Thank you for remembering and coming here today.

Welcome Home!

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