By Collin Brooks
An American flag, flower and penny were placed at the graves of the six gone, but not forgotten, Vietnam Veterans at the Mountain Home National Cemetery last Wednesday, March 29 during a special Vietnam Veterans Day Ceremony.
Those relics were left by the Mountain Home staff, to honor the fallen or missing soldiers who never returned from one of America’s most controversial wars.
“The 12’x18’ flag waves proudly over them as she did and always will,” said Mountain Home Military Historian Allen Jackson, explaining the symbolism of the items.
The coin, a penny, is placed on the headstone, which is a practice that dates back to the military dead in the Roman Empire. A coin left today on the tombstone is set to leave a message to the deceased member’s family that lets them know that someone visited their grave and showed their respects. The third tribute is a red rose, which represents the love the staff and community of Mountain Home have for their veterans.
Those six sets of symbols sit on four graves and two memorials on the VA grounds. The four dead are Specialist Fourth Class Bennie Eugene McCorkle; Lance Corporal John Edward West Jr.; Private First Class David Clark Williams and Private First Class Charles Howard Duty, while the two that are still missing in action are Captain Robert Douglas Avery and Specialist Fourth Class Charles Wayne Timbs.
“A person, as with these six, is never truly forgotten as long as someone remembers them and passes that name on to the next generation,” Jackson said.
That is something that the Kingsport Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America is trying to do when they go out to different school projects to speak with children of all ages about their time in the war. The program started about five years ago and they have been able to get into almost every school in the area.
“I’d say we have talked to at least 50,000 kids,” R.B Louthian said. “Where we held everything inside for so long, nobody ever wanted to talk about it. Some of us have gone 40 years and never talked about it.”
John Pollak served as a US Navy Petty Officer from 1968-1971. He was one of five veterans to speak at the event. He said the school trips have meant a lot to him.
“I don’t have to go to any therapy session at the VA, all I have to do is go and talk to these kids,” he said. “They wipe away the weight off your shoulders and it comes from talking to them about Vietnam, but not about everything that we did over there.”
He said he wants veterans to talk not only with others, but mostly with their family members.
“If you have grandkids, talk to them. Because it is your family legacy and when we pass, it is gone,” he said. “They’ll never know they have heroes in their family.”
There were good stories that he recalled, including remembering tons of motorcycles being loaded into airplanes that were flying back home, which had accumulated over the nine months they had been stationed overseas.
Dining wasn’t the best either, he said when they go into the school programs, they often tell the kids the best tasting thing overseas was taking fruit loops and mixing it with Kool-Aid. That is how bad the evaporated milk tasted.
Mo Baines volunteered in the U.S. Army and served from 1968-1969 and he said that he enjoys visiting the classrooms to see the smiling faces of little kids.
“The real heroes are the ones that are on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington,” Baines said. “The Lord brought us back to honor those people, so that is who we are going to honor…I know, like a lot of Vietnam veterans here, we’ve got things that we remember, the good times. Those are the times we try to dwell on in our school program. That is what we want you to remember.”
But not all of the memories from Vietnam are good. Louthian explained the jubilation that was felt in the plane when he took off from Vietnam to return home. But many of the veterans of the Vietnam War weren’t offered appreciation when they came home, instead, they were met by protesters.
Pollak said a lot of the action he saw came on the flight deck as he dodged landing aircraft and other things on the ship’s deck. He also recalls knowing that he was the last one to touch one of his comrade’s planes that would never return.
“I’ve had to live with that,” he said pausing. “Because I don’t know if I missed something that made him not maneuver well when he got shot down….It effects all of us. So when I go to the (Vietnam Memorial) Wall, I not only have those two guys, but I have five from my hometown who never came back.
“So today, I would like to think that we are honoring those 58,479 brothers and sisters that never came back.”
Bill Peterson volunteered in the U.S. Army to go to Vietnam, and while he flew on plenty of dangerous missions, he took time to commend those medics in the field.
“They’re the real heroes,” he said. “You patched up the guys in the field and you are the real heroes.”
He said while there were some dark times in Vietnam, he wouldn’t trade his experience.
“There isn’t one day that goes by that I don’t remember missions in Vietnam. No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the memories and, like most of you vets here, it’s just a fact of life and we live with it.”
He recalled running ammo to a group that was running low — or “winchestered” as he recalled the code word — was surrounded by the VC on three sides with a mountain on their backside.
“We never turned a mission down, regardless of the situation. We always tried to get in unless enemy fire was so bad that we would lose the ship,” he said. “There was one time where we lost three aircraft, trying to get one man out. But we strongly believed in– leave no man behind. We did everything we could to get men out.”
Baines said that there were many things he’d like to forget about Vietnam, but he likes to think about the good times, while never forgetting his lost comrades.
“I’ve got a person on the Wall in Washington. I can walk right to the panel, I’ve got the name, the number, the line memorized. I am sure that a lot of you do,” he said. “If you’ve never been up there to see the Wall, that is the real experience. Try to put that on your bucket list.”
He also shared the time when he spoke with a 16-year old girl who was of Vietnamese descent during a dinner stop in Murfreesboro a few years ago. He said that she came up to him and spoke about how thankful she was for his service and that her mother said if it wasn’t for the Americans in Vietnam, she may have never been born.
“That meant a lot to me,” he said slowly.