Tonight at a neighbors Christmas party, I had the honor to spend several hours talking with Randy and Gary. Both served our country in Vietnam.
Gary served one year “in theatre” as a Sargent in the Army. He told me stories about how he and his fellow soldiers were assaulted day after day – by Americans. Guys would pick fights with them just because they “looked military”. I’m happy to report that Gary and company were undefeated in bar room brawls.
Gary told me about friends who were “messed up” when they got home, but insisted he was fine. Yet, with eyes watering, he shared story after story about how he and his friends were attacked and forced into fights they never wanted – at home. It seemed as though Gary was more effected by what happened after he returned than what he saw when in combat.
Randy, a small and soft-spoken gentleman with intense eyes, made the biggest impression on me. Randy spent three years, two tours, as a Marine in Vietnam he re-enlisted shortly after a field promotion to Sargent when his superior, and most of his team, were killed in action. He wanted to go back and, with an intensity in his eyes that I have never seen before, told me that he “made good – two for one”.
Almost six years ago, Randy was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer – an aggressive and incurable form – and given less than five years to live. He has gone through many rounds of chemo and stem cell transplants. Today, he looks very healthy, but moves rather slowly and speaks very softly. He says, at this point, no one knows how much longer he has left. As he shared this information with me, Randy took a sip of his beer, looked me square in the eye and said “I don’t know how much longer I have left, but I’m not done yet”.
Randy honestly believes he was exposed to something, perhaps Agent Orange, while in Vietnam that lead to his diagnosis. However, he does not cast blame. Randy feels that, while it really sucks, this is just part of serving his country.
Randy, Gary and I spent the evening talking, drinking, laughing and sharing stories. Through the course of the night, I eventually told them about my “past life” as a fire/medic. Most of the stories we shared involved “off-duty” partying, but certainly we all shared some of our more intense experiences. For the record, my stories did not hold a candle to what they experienced.
At the end of the night, both men shook my hand and thanked me for a great evening. Randy, however, held my hand. He looked me square in the eyes with the intensity I had seen earlier and said, “Thank you for letting me share my story with you”. He said he does not very often get the opportunity to talk with someone who is willing to listen and who understands his background. An incredible compliment from an unbelievably strong and brave man.
This filled me with pride, satisfaction, gratitude, and humility. This is a true American hero – thanking ME for simply talking to him……
And then, still firmly gripping my hand, with a firm thump on the shoulder and a renewed intensity in his eyes, Randy said to me: “And thank you for your service and what you did for our community”……….
With that he turned, waved to the host of the party, and walked out the door……