He was my high school history teacher forty years ago.I called him recently, just to talk.  His name is Dave. True blue, dutiful, realistic and well-read; 101st Airborne, 1st Brigade in Vietnam, he saw combat July 1965 to July 1966. He inspired us then, does today. No better time to remember than on Veterans Day.   

Not drafted, Dave volunteered; youngest child, rural Maine. By mid-high school, he had read William L. Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” knew all about World War II, wanted to teach history. Then came the Vietnam War.

When I say he volunteered, I mean, he never stopped volunteering. He volunteered to go to Vietnam, for jump school, 101st Airborne, first into Camron Bay, immediately into the jungle, and back into the field with days left on orders.

He reminds me, he did not go to avoid things, but to do things. In that last month, company strength was down 50 percent. Volunteers were asked. He could have avoided it – but that was not his spirit. 

“Not a great patriotic upsurge, just something that had to be done … and I was there.”  Pressed, he says, “lying in a rice paddy, you look over at that patch on your left shoulder …” He had seen plenty killed. Saddest was a medic trying to save a gung-ho guy who charged a 50-cal at 100 yards. They both fell.

Does he think himself lucky? Yes, for sure. Assigned with five guys to take 100 Vietnamese to a mid-jungle swap that presaged an ambush, he ended up back in camp “at four or five in the morning,” leg covered in leeches. Deet killed them. He grabbed sleep on a board, poncho overhead. Next morning, the leg was huge – mass infection. Inconvenient. 

That was lucky? Well, it forced him to medivac. “I was the mortar man, and carried the radio,” but they insisted he get out of there. “A few hours later, someone says, ‘Hey did you hear what happened to Company C?’ and it turns out a round went off in the tube, killed those around it.” He pauses. “That would have been me.”

A month remaining, he volunteered. Combat got intense. “We are on a hill, two of us, one guy about five feet away, and a Chicom grenade comes … plunk, plunk, plunk … lands right in front of me.” Details get etched deep when life stands still. “I lost my helmet night before, so was just in my field cap, not that a helmet would have helped … I looked over at the guy beside me, you know, our eyes met …”

“You never knew with these Chicom grenades … we found them afterwards, like the boobytraps.” I waited. “Well, I reached over, threw it down the hill…” It was a lucky day – and he knows it.   

Maybe that is why he kept volunteering. For 18 years, he wrote columns for “the airborne guys” of the 327th Regiment, 101st Airborne, 1st Brigade. Doing that, he connected upwards of a thousand guys. 

Once he got a letter from the father of a Navy vet. His son owned an army knife, originally issued to a member of the 101st Airborne. A name was on the knife. This Navy father wanted to get it home.

Dave reflects on what happened next.  That letter came 40 years after the war. Two days later – just two days – he got a second letter. This one was from California. It mentioned the same name, the one on the knife. The second letter was from a relative.   

The name was a 101st comrade who had fallen in combat. Dave called the fallen paratrooper’s sister, asked if their parents were alive. Would they like the knife? Yes, it would mean a lot. Dave made it so. He seems to imply that life, like history, is curious, unpredictable, but details matter.

Today, he tells one more story. Other connections made?  He thinks. One guy wrote him asking if he could find a paratrooper from the 101st named “Jack.” Jack, what? No idea, just “Jack.” 

Dave put out the request. Low and behold, Jack appeared. What pulled the men together?  Forty years earlier, on a no-name battlefield, mid-firefight in life-leeching Vietnam, a man named Jack happened on a medic trying to save four guys. 

Jack saw three being tended, the fourth ignored. Why? “Too far gone,” said the medic, “have to save the guys who have a chance.” Why? “Lost too much blood, he can’t be saved.” Jack recognized the fourth guy. They had just been drinking beers on a three-day pass in Qui Nhon a week ago.   

Jack pressed the medic. Why can’t we get plasma into him? “Too late, no veins.” The dying man had bled out, turned white, veins gone. Jack dropped everything, checked for a vein in neck, wrist, armpit – nothing. Then he checked an ankle, found one. It worked. The medic gave him plasma, and – in Dave’s words – “got the guy going.” 

Forty years later, Dave connected Jack with the man he saved. Small things in a big world, big things in two lives. That is what Veterans Day is about – being grateful for life, the chance to live free, and those who protect our freedom. Dave was one.   

Veterans Day is about those who served and serve – about inspiration and life experience, duty and what history teaches, what unsung heroes do, and how to pass the spirit forward.  Veterans, like one who served in the 101st Airborne, Vietnam, and later taught me history, are a treasure. They pass along rare truths, and the importance of volunteering – doing what we can, while we can. Dave still does. 

Robert B. Charles grew up in Wayne, and worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. He served 10 years a Navy intelligence officer (USNR), and Assistant Secretary of State to Colin Powell. He is often back in Wayne.


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