Koetting: Veterans’ lives, stories make me thankful
On Oct. 2, I experienced 22 hours that I’ll never forget. I was given the privilege to go on the 10th Show Me Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Onboard were four World War II, seven Korean War and 29 Vietnam War veterans. I’d been on the flight once before, in the spring of 2009 with all World War II vets, but this was different.
Seeing these memorials through the eyes of younger veterans was a sight to see. (Yes, I believe Vietnam veterans are young!)
Riding on the bus from Sedalia to Kansas City, I got a clear view of what the trip would be like. I sat next to Robert Vaughan, a Vietnam veteran from Green Ridge. I noticed he was carrying a piece of paper with him. He told me on it were the names of 24 men — all killed or missing in action — and he wanted to pay his respects to them at the wall. I thought that’s a lot of loss for one man and yet I knew others on that bus probably had similar experiences.
When we arrived at the airport in Baltimore, I got off the plane first. I wanted to see the facial expressions of these men as they were greeted by people clapping, cheering and thanking them for their service. Over the years, Vietnam veterans have shared with me how poorly they were treated when they returned to this country. For a lot of these men, it was the first time they were ever thanked. To witness this was heartwarming.
When we arrived at the World War II Memorial, it was very cloudy and misting. It didn’t dampen the spirits of these 40 men, though. We moved on to the Korean War Memorial, followed by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The last time I had been at the Vietnam Memorial was when my stepdaughter graduated from Fort Belvoir. At that time, the names were just that — names on a wall.
In 2010, I made it a mission to find the families of all 12 men listed on the Vietnam Memorial at the Pettis County Courthouse. It took me six months to locate them all. I worked with the families to document the stories of their loved ones and to gather photos of each man. When I heard I would be re-visiting the wall, there was something I knew I had to do. With the help of Matthew Gardner at McLaughlin Funeral Chapel, I had their stories laminated and I placed each of them at the panel where their name was listed.
I was amazed to see in such a short time how many people stopped by, picked up the stories and read them. At least for a day, those 12 men weren’t just a name on a wall. Visitors could see their faces and learn what they were all about and what they stood for.
Several moments at that wall caught my attention. One was when Vietnam veteran Dean Eichenberger, of Saverton, noticed a name listed high on the wall. After much discussion, he thought it was possible it was the name of his platoon sergeant, Robert Green. This sergeant helped pull Dean out of the line of fire after he was wounded and made sure he got on the medevac. Dean was a bit stunned because he always assumed the sergeant survived the war.
Throughout the day, I watched Dean and could tell he was nervous. He began to question whether this was really his sergeant. To ease his mind, I told him I had to go back to the office when we returned to Sedalia. I invited him to follow me and that I’d help him look up Green’s name on the Virtual Wall website. I told him, if it was me, I’d want to know immediately. This way he’d have his answer before he went to sleep.
He looked at me with disbelief and initially told me no. However, once we hit the city limits, he changed his mind. We looked up every Robert Green there was — all nine of them — but none fit the criteria. All signs pointed to his friend having survived the war. The whole experience merely reminded me that as a whole, the Vietnam War was non-stop chaos. Friends came and went so quickly, it was hard to keep track of who survived and who died. I felt so privileged to be able to help him.
On Veterans Day, I think of all the veterans I have lost, the ones I have recently met and the ones I have yet to meet. Each one leaves an imprint on me in their own special way. Thank you all for your service!
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