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Posts Tagged ‘military veterans’

Today, we switch gears, dramatically.

Richard Arthur, my good friend and former comrade in the Army Reserve, occasionally writes pieces for the blog, and he has come up with one that stirred me deeply. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Here’s Richard’s story.

Walking up to the stark white, marble tombstone, among the hundreds of other tombstones, at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver and seeing my old friend’s name perfectly carved into it, I damn near went to my knees. I’ve been in dozens of cemeteries, but I always feel the solemn and cold finality of a grave marker. This time the feeling was painfully strong.

A recent, job-related trip brought me to Denver, and I had planned to pay my respects while there. I brought a camera to document the trip and got there late in the afternoon with the sun sitting low in the West, causing long, dark shadows to fall from the headstones. I spent about 15 minutes there, snapping pictures and hoping I could navigate my way back to the hotel across town without too much confusion.

Mike Shea and I went into the Army early in 1968, but that’s about the only commonality in our life experiences. I was yanked in, as an Army reservist activated by President Lyndon Johnson in the spring of 1968, while he rushed in headlong.

Mike enlisted in the Army with a guarantee in writing that he would be trained as an infantryman and also be sent to airborne training (parachute school) prior to deployment to Vietnam. That’s just what he wanted.

The summer of 1967 was the time I got to know Mike. He was a year behind me in school, and we didn’t really know each other until we played pool at a local “recreation” hall near 39th Street and State Line, called Rex’s Pool Room. Neither of us was anywhere near a true pool hustler, but we could hold our own with the novices who wandered in from time to time.

The main thing we liked to do, as I remember, was ride around town in our cars and drink Coors beer, which at that time could only be purchased on the Kansas side. Many trips to Los Corrals restaurant downtown were included to provide nutritional fuel for these treks.

We covered a lot of miles that summer and a good deal of it was in his old ’51 Chevy that used oil and had a tube-type radio that took forever to warm up and then didn’t work reliably. These were the days before FM radio hit the scene hard, when AM radio – specifically WHB and KUDL — ruled the airways in Kansas City. At night, you could also pick up WLS in Chicago and KAAY in Little Rock.

Enlistment

In the middle of that summer, Mike told me he’d been talking to an Army recruiter about joining the service. He wanted to serve, and he wanted to fight. He wanted to be an airborne Ranger and go to Vietnam.

I would be entirely untruthful to say that any part of his plan appealed to me. 

He joined the Army with a reporting date scheduled for more than six months out, and then he and another guy hitchhiked to California to see the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the hippies and the music scene there. They then hitched all the way back across the U.S. to Florida a month later. He sent me a few postcards along way, making me wish I had made the adventurous trip myself. When he returned, he said that he and his buddy had spent many hours sitting at highway entrances in rain and heat, waiting and hoping for rides.

Mike reported to the Army sometime in early 1968, and I met up with him at Fort Leonard Wood in the spring, where he was nearly finished with basic training (the first eight weeks of training), and I was just starting my first or second week.  Being that far ahead of me in training, he seemed like a wise old owl, giving me some pointers for getting through this time of great adjustment to military life.

Mike was a very good correspondent and wrote to me from his advanced infantry training post and later from “jump school,” where he made five parachute jumps in a week’s time to earn the coveted sterling silver wings worn above the left pocket. He would soon have plenty more awards to adorn his uniform.

Vietnam

By summertime, he was in Vietnam doing exactly what he had enlisted to do. He was in an airborne infantry unit, the 173rd, and walking point on combat patrols. Very soon, he volunteered for LRRP (long range reconnaissance patrol) duty and further immersed himself into war. LRRPs, called “lurps” for short, had unenviable job of patrolling enemy territory in small groups, normally consisting of five to seven men.

The main job of a lurp is to observe and report enemy movement and strength. The mission requires great stealth, and the overriding goal is to avoid combat or enemy contact, due to the small the size of the group. If discovered, these lurp crews were often wiped out at once. Their main weapons were the radio and an escape plan with a helicopter in the vicinity.

Mike liked lurp duty because their outfit was housed in a secluded corner of the base camp and lurps never got assigned mundane chores like KP (kitchen patrol) or guard duty. Most of the regular troops didn’t dare enter their area, as they were considered secretive and very dangerous soldiers. At the same time, they were on the Vietcong’s hit list, complete with bounties offered.

A few months into his Vietnam tour, Mike sent me a letter with exciting news – exciting for him: He had been invited to attend Ranger school! This was a dream come true for him. Being a Ranger was another level of service that he had wanted but had not gotten the opportunity to try in the States. The Rangers had only recently started an in-country (Vietnam) qualification school, and it was already known to be far more difficult to pass than the state-side version.

His letters stopped for several weeks while he gave his full energy to Ranger training, and then he wrote that he had indeed graduated and was entitled to wear the elite Ranger tab on his shoulder. Having read in-depth about the rigors of Ranger School, I knew how great an accomplishment this was. The letters started flowing again, and we exchanged mail for the rest of his tour.

Back home

On his return to the States, Mike got assigned to some unproductive garrison duty, and he quickly decided not to stay in the Army. His last year in the service was uneventful and consisted mainly of answering phones and other mind-numbing work, which he hated.

We basically lost contact at that point. I finished the active-duty phase of my enlistment and returned to Kansas City to be an Army Reservist for several more years. I guess you could say I fulfilled my goal of being a part-time soldier, slogging through college and attending weekend drills.

Mike had returned to Kansas City, started dating a former high school classmate, got married and moved to Denver to work for the railroad.

In 2003, a high-school classmate hatched the idea of promoting an all-class-years, informal reunion at T.G.I. Friday’s at the Ward Parkway Shopping Center. Someone located Mike in Denver, and he came to Kansas City for the event. We got to spend some time catching up on the last 30-plus years, and we swapped e-mail addresses. For a few months, we exchanged e-mails, but then, for whatever reason, he stopped responding.

Our same classmate arranged informal, all-class reunions almost every two years after that, but Mike didn’t come back for any of them. At the 2009 reunion, I mentioned to a mutual friend that I wished Mike would come to another one. I was floored when the guy told me that Mike had died almost a year and a half earlier.

A quick Internet search and a look at the Denver Post obits verified what I had been told: Mike had passed away in the summer of 2008. I also learned he was buried in the national cemetery. 

Saying goodbye

Before leaving Kansas City for the Denver trip, I looked up a phone listing for his widow. I was hesitant to contact her because we had never met, and I suspected she might have no idea about my long-ago friendship with Mike. I didn’t call when I was out there, but on Veterans Day, after I had returned home, I made the call and had a very gratifying chat with her.  

She was Mike’s second wife. He and his first wife divorced in the 80s and had remarried in 1985.  

His widow told me how happy she was to hear from one of his old friends and that she had been thinking about him on that Veterans Day. It only took a few minutes on the phone for her to recall my friendship with her husband, including some stories he had shared with her over the years about our military and personal experiences.

In our half-hour conversation, she told me a lot about Mike’s years at the railroad and about raising a family. She still operates a small business that they started together. We agreed to talk again after the holidays.

As I stood next to Mike’s tombstone with the shadows lengthening that October afternoon, I thought about how I admired Mike as a soldier – aggressive, fearless and dedicated to the mission. To me, he was a hero. I felt privileged to have known and befriended Mike Shea.

I’ve always had a problem with how to respectfully depart from the gravesite of a friend or loved one. It seems sort of cold to just turn and walk away, so this time I gave the engraved stone the best military salute I could muster, then headed for the car.

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