Right Opinion

Sam’s Great Story

Roy Exum · Sep. 12, 2010

Once long ago there was a wonderful and very funny guy who worked alongside me named Sam Venable. He was a marvelous storyteller and a great pal but soon he left the Chattanooga newspaper and returned home to Knoxville, where today he is the lead columnist for the News-Sentinel.

I haven’t seen him in years but I’ve followed him, reading his columns wherever I can, and in the quirky way that things sometimes work, he just added another jewel in his crown. Sam, you see, has a huge heart for people and back in January of 2008, he wrote a marvelous column about two truck drivers. Little did he know his story would have a huge effect on one man’s life.

Sam had heard about a long-haul trucker from Knoxville named Tommy Rhodes, who just so happened to be delivering a load of auto parts to a warehouse in Kankakee, Ill. One certain day Tommy backed his rig up to the loading bay of the warehouse and said rather casually, “How ya’ doing?” to another driver whose truck was being unloaded in the next bay.

The other driver, Greg Walls, stared at Tommy, saying, “I think I know you,” but Rhodes studied the man and said, nope, he didn’t think so. “Were you ever in the Marines?” came the reply. Tommy narrowed his eyes as he desperately searched his memory, still coming up blank. But because he had indeed been a Leatherneck, he quietly answered, “Semper Fi.”

“Well, were you ever stationed on the USS Guam? In Spain? When a helicopter crashed?” and suddenly both men roared because 20 years before they had been heroes together on that fateful day when the Marines assigned to the ship were doing on-shore maneuvers.

That was in 1978 and the two hadn’t seen one another since that day the chopper crashed downhill from their position in Spain. Yes, Tommy and Greg had been shipmates and, yes, they were both Marines but they only met once, the day of the accident.

When the helicopter crashed, Tommy immediately raced down to help in any way he could. “This other guy did, too,” Tommy told my writer friend. “The other guy” was Greg Walls. Greg was riding in a jeep when the crash took place and, as he leapt from the moving vehicle, it later turned out he badly injured both knees.

But at the time, Greg pulled back a chunk of the fuselage and Tommy dived inside. Both Ignoring the threat of aviation fuel and hydraulic fluid, the two extracted 15 soldiers who were either injured or dead. In the end, Greg and Tommy eventually saved nine lives because of their sudden heroism.

When the two truckers meet in Illinois, they hadn’t seen one other since the crash. But amid the hugs and tears of the joyful reunion, they learned there had been quite a different outcome for one another and that is where my buddy, Sam the writer, steps in.

You see, shortly after the tragedy, Tommy had been awarded the Navy-Marine Metal, which is the highest peacetime award for heroism. But something happened to Greg’s paperwork and he went unnoticed. As a matter of fact, he even went to the VA for medical help, telling them he had injured his knees responding to the crash, but they didn’t believe him.

Sam wrote a moving story about Greg’s lesser fate and, in the way things go, the American Legion got hold of Sam’s story. One official, Marc McCabe, was so incensed he took it to the Department of Veterans Affairs and then went to Washington and Quantico, Va., in a further effort to right the wrong. McCabe soon had compelling evidence after pouring over reams of files.

So the other day in Chicago, a truck driver named Greg Walls was – at long last – finally awarded the Navy-Marine Medal. As investigator McCabe said, “This case became personal for me. Greg Walls served his country proudly and was wounded saving those lives. A great injustice was done to him all these years.”

“Now that he has received the award, we want to make sure he gets the back pay and medical payments he deserves,” McCabe added, but today I’ve got a little different slant. Had it not been for Sam Venable, who wrote about a chance reunion between two truck drivers, the story would have never been known. The truth would have never come out.

I’m proud of our heroes, Tommy Rhodes and Greg Walls, but I’m also proud of my hero, Sam the storyteller. Once again, his talent and his heart has made a difference.

Facts over Fear
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