Monday, May 27, 2013

US Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States.  It is a day set aside to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in the US Armed Forces.  For those readers who do not live in the US, this tradition goes back to just after the US Civil War...nearly 150 years ago.  Some time ago a good friend of mine shared a letter he wrote to a family member seeking to understand more about the circumstances of his brother's death.  My friend has given me permission to print his letter.  I've redacted some of the names to protect the privacy of all involved.

Jerry: My name is ---- and I served as (your brother's) platoon leader in (Vietnam)from my arrival in early Nov 68 until his death on Jan 15, 1969. (Your brother) was my radio telephone operator (RTO) upon my arrival so we quickly became acquainted with each other. He was never more than one step from me, always prepared to hand me the handset. He walked behind me so in case of attack he could fall forward toward me with the radio in hand. He knew a great risk was his with that radio with whip lash antenna.(whip lash antennas extend several feet in the air revealing one's position )We spent hours talking to each other about our hopes and dreams and what was happening stateside. I was always encouraged by his spirit - when we stopped for a night lagger, I was required to move forward to be with our CO(commanding officer), usually taking my C rations with me. While the CO and platoon leaders met, (your brother) dug my fighting position, my sleeping position and was prepared to talk to me upon my return. I depended upon him for so much. One of my earliest decisions in the bush was that I pull guard duty with my RTO, my platoon sergeant, his RTO and our medic. Five made the guard duty easier since we started at 2100 and went to beginning morning twilight. Several times (your brother) would pull or split my hour at 0100 so I could get another hour of sleep. I would always tell him not to do that, but you know how he was, he would grin and say, sir you need that hour more than me. When we stopped for rest, he wanted to know if he could get me water, always from a running stream with sandy bottom, or a well. And when we needed a bio break, he guarded me while I relieved myself, and I then guarded him. We were always close by proximity and respected each other. Around Thanksgiving, he asked if I would consider appointing him as a fire team leader so he could be promoted. I did that, and promoted him. We spent Christmas day on LZ Cork, up in the mountains, our last day before our longest stretch in the field, 34 days. Leaving the mountains, we were sweeping the lowlands in early Jan looking for RVN movements. On January 15th, our company was stretched in a long line moving toward a village. We encountered heavy, heavy resistance. My new RTO was shot in the leg and it was a while until I could get to the radio. Our right flank entered the village but withdrew under heavy fire. As we fought thru the afternoon, the company was taking heavy casualties as our movement on the battlefield was not an option since there were RVN in the trees firing at everyone who moved. Even with the best artillery support and air support, we were badly outnumbered. When we withdrew that night to a cemetery, I realized I had two KIA, (your brother) and (another soldier), and five wounded. I can tell you that both KIA were head wounds so there was no pain and suffering. That day was the worst battle I encountered until I suffered near life ending injuries and was medevacked(sic) out on May 29, 1969. Toward the end of January, I received a letter from your father, the only response I ever received from a next of kin. I decided early in my tour that I would send a personal letter to each next of kin and the platoon would take up a collection for every KIA. I still have your father's letter and a prayer card from (your brother's) service. They are in a book, secure in storage. I have not looked at that book except for maybe 3-4 times in the last 40 years. In early Feb 1969, my sister wrote that she had delivered a baby boy on Jan 15th. I was reminded of the scripture that the Lord takes and gives. While Ricky, my nephew, in no way resembles (your brother), I always think of him when I see Ricky. Upon Ricky's 20th birthday, I wrote him a letter, explaining about (your brother's) death on his birth day and my expectations of him.
Jerry, I hope these memories of mine are helpful to you in wanting to know about your brother. Naive as a platoon leader, I never wanted to lose a soldier in my command. Your brother's death was a loss from which I really have never recovered either. I have traveled to DC to the RVN wall several times, rubbed my hand over your brother's name and thanked God for the privilege I had to know him, and call him friend, soldier, patriot. I am a better person because I knew (him). You had the greater privilege of calling him brother.

My friend's letter to the brother of a fallen comrade expresses the emotions of this day better than any I could write.

Tucked in a tiny corner of province of Limburg, near the village of Margraten, on the road between Maastricht and Aachen is the only American Military Cemetery in The Netherlands.  Buried there are 8301 Americans who gave their lives in WWII.  There are also 1722 names of those missing whose remains were never recovered.  The photo above shows what it looks like on US Memorial Day.

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