GENDUSA COLUMN: The immeasurable value of courage

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

He sat in a chair against the wall in the doctor’s colorless waiting room, quietly anticipating a nurse to call his name. Lines only time can create, etched across his face, and a baseball-style hat covered his silver hair.  He was tall and thin, and his clear blue eyes seemed to avoid others in the room.  I didn’t know the gentleman and didn’t want to stare, but after noticing his cap, I knew I must be in the presence of a tall, thin, blue-eyed hero.  

His cap and approximate age told the story of his service during the Vietnam War.   The Naval ship’s gold embroidered name was above the cap’s bill, reminding me of a time when friends and family, including my brother, left for war.   

I see more of those hats as I stroll the streets today, and I thank God I do.  Soldiers who survived the brutality of all wars, including Vietnam, should always crown their heads with pride.  And when we see them walk by, let us be humbled and show our appreciation.

In the mid-60s, my brother was a Lieutenant on a Navy destroyer in the South China Sea.   Like many Vietnam Vets, John only told war stories among fellow veterans, keeping their military service and actions quiet.  However, one day he recounted, “I was on deck when a young man working in my crew asked, 

“Lieutenant John, why are we here?” 

“What do you mean, Roy?” John replied.

Like many other warriors, Roy was just out of high school and participating in a foreign battle far from his homeland.

“What is the reason for this war?” the young man asked again.

My brothers reply, “It is complicated, but no matter the reason, we are here because our country asked us to serve.” 

They both returned to work and war.  

Merely to serve was what our government asked of all young men and women in those days.  Because our country evoked the draft, many had no choice.  They courageously entered the conflict in often non-forgiving places in boats, planes, copters, and boots on the ground.  Over 59,200 never returned home.  After returning to our shores, 300,000 more died from agent orange exposure.  

How many others painfully endured Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and war-related injuries?

This Memorial Day, let it be a reminder that not all war casualties happen on the battlefield.   No matter what war, conflict, or circumstance a soldier gave their life, this country’s citizens are not thankful enough.  We, who never served or suffered the effects of war, do not understand the sacrifices of so many. 

At the end of May each year, we plan what we will do;  barbecues, swimming, or celebrating a day off by doing little.  But Memorial Day should be a solemn observance honoring those who gave all for us to have the freedom to enjoy all the things we do.  Let’s take the time to teach our children about the brave men and women who ensured their privilege to attend school or church and to dream without limits.  

I believe this to be true: No veteran should ever be homeless, never required to pay for the best medical or psychological care, and always be treated with dignity and respect.  To do less is abhorrent and un-American.

The Vietnam Veterans bore additional pain because their country was tired of an unpopular war.  There was no applause at the airports when they arrived through the gates nor fanfare of any kind.  These brave soldiers walked home quietly as if abandoned by those who gave them no choice but to serve.   

How sorrowful we should be for the pain we caused those unselfish heroes.    Many still bear the physical and mental scars of war.  Yet, they thrive on the comradery of fellow service members while mutually grieving the loss of friends who didn’t survive the battles.

I stroll each year through a cemetery in the Tennesee town where I was born.  Among the headstones bearing the names of families I recognize, there are many veterans.  Toward the end of a row, there is a single bronze stone with an American flag perched above it.  

It reads, “Lieutenant John E. Walker.  US Navy Vietnam.  July 25, 1941, to April 29, 1998.  

Tears fall each time I lay a flag and flowers next to his headstone.  My big brother, my defender, my hero, is just one of countless numbers who loved his country enough to join a battle. Tragically, he died from the effects of war because he was merely asked to serve. 

Until he left us, he wore his cap proudly, as he should.

Honoring those who gave all they could to maintain our freedom shows the rest of us the immeasurable value of courage.