Roger Helle / May 24, 2019

Never Forgotten

Memorial Day is not about mattress sales, cookouts, discounted linens, or an extra day off work.

It was just one of many routine patrols in Vietnam that night. The 13-man Marine squad made their way through the village silently. The point man paused now and then to listen for any unusual sounds before continuing down the trail. They arrived at the edge of the village and began the nearly two-mile hike across open rice paddies toward their destination — a small fishing village on a tributary of the Perfume River just south of Hue, the Imperial City of South Vietnam.

It was a moonless night as they approached the village where the Viet Cong were believed to be gathering. As the squad entered the village, the stillness of the night was broken when the jungle tree line erupted in automatic-weapons fire. At the same time, a “daisy chain” of mines exploded, throwing three Marines at the end of the squad like rag dolls into the rice paddy.

When the firing stopped, stillness fell upon the trail and, like ghosts, the Viet Cong emerged from the jungle, moving quickly among the bodies of the dead or dying Marines, taking their weapons and equipment and disappearing into the night. The three Marines blown off the trail slowly regained their senses, two of whom had taken the brunt of the explosions. Shock gave way to pain and they began moaning. One 18-year-old Marine had somehow been spared and was only dazed by the force of the explosion. He called for the reaction force that was always on standby at the nearby base of Phu Bai.

After what seemed like hours but was less than 30 minutes, a helicopter landed a platoon of Marines who set up a perimeter on the trail. The two wounded men were flown to Da Nang and the third man, just a kid really, was taken back to the base at Phu Bai. The next day, the surviving Marine was told the other two Marines did not make it. It was a guilt he would carry for nearly 23 years.

It was 1989. The young Marine, now 41, stood on the rice paddy dike where his friends had died. With his family and a dozen other Vietnam veterans in over 100-degree heat, they held a memorial service for the fallen whose memory he had carried with him every day for the past 23 years. While the impromptu ceremony was being held, a crowd of villagers quietly gathered around this group of Americans, the first they had seen since the end of the war in 1975.

An elderly woman carrying a little girl came and stood next to the Marine. Through an interpreter, he told the local villagers that his friends had died here and he had come to honor their memory. The older woman walked up to the Marine and laid her head against his chest and wept. She too had suffered loss during the war, so they cried together.

Today, I am 71, but the memory of my tours in Vietnam is with me forever. I still remember Vietnam, but by God’s grace, He has taken away the pain I once had from those memories. What I do remember is the brave men I fought alongside and the love they had for their country.

A favorite saying I saw all over during my tours in Vietnam was, “To those who fought for it, freedom has a flavor that the protected will never know.”

Memorial Day is not about commercial sales, cookouts, discount deals, or an extra day off work. It is a day to pause and remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend the freedoms that America has unlike any other nation on the face of the earth. They earned your remembrance, because freedom has a price tag!

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