Veterans Day 2009: Every soldier -- lessons from a wallet

Veterans Day is important to me. It causes me to think about all those men and women who have put on the uniform and served on behalf of one of the branches of the U.S. military.

A group of U.S. Army veterans of the Vietnam War will gather as it is with each other we most closely identify.

We will gather again this year and share stories, memories, feelings and laughter.

We will speak in a patois particular to soldiers of the Vietnam War.

We appreciate veterans of all branches and of every conflict and the times between conflicts.

Having served in combat I also appreciate those who are our veterans-to-be -- those who wear the uniform now and are standing between us and those who would harm us.

I recently saw a Chinese movie called "Assembly," a gripping, sanguineous story of a combat unit of the Chinese army in conflict with the Japanese army.

What struck me about the story is the universal experience of being a combat soldier. At some level nearly all combat veterans had the same experience.

We shared the experience of discomfort, fear, blood, suffering and death. We also shared the honor, camaraderie and satisfaction of doing what may be the most difficult job a person can do.

Watching the movie reminded me of an experience I had in August 1968.

I was serving as an infantry platoon commander with the 101st Airborne Division.

We were called the Screaming Eagles. On a nondescript, unnamed mountain above the Ashua Valley was a forward fire support base we called Firebase Berchtesgaden, after a famous World War II battle of the same name fought by the same Screaming Eagles.

Firebase Berchtesgaden was used to provide artillery support for the infantry units fighting the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Ashua Valley.

It was also used as a staging area for those units going into and out of the valley.

It served as a command center for the units in the area. It was a hub of activity.

Helicopters were consistently flying in and out. Howitzers of various sizes fired around the clock.

There was room for a small aid station to treat and triage the wounded.

It was an important place to those serving in and around it.

It was also an important target for the NVA. Mortar and rocket attacks were frequent. Occasionally infantry units would try and get close enough to do damage or at least disrupt the operation.

We would send out patrols to try and find the mortar and rocket positions or to intercept infantry patrols.

It was on one of these missions that I had an experience involving a picture in a wallet.

Leading a squad-size patrol our mission was to try and find any NVA in the area that could cause problems at the firebase.

Late one morning we accomplished that mission and a firefight ensued. I doubt it lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes, although at the time it seemed much longer.

When it was over we searched the area for enemy casualties. Fortunately, we had taken none ourselves.

As I walked through the thick brush I found, what appeared to be, a dead NVA soldier. Bending down I instinctively felt for a pulse on his neck. He was still warm, but there was no pulse.

As trained I began searching his clothing and gear of anything that could be of intelligence value to us. In the Army at a small unit level we called that "looking for S2."

To understand what happened next it is not necessary to understand the phrase "S2." From his pocket I pulled out a wallet.

It looked no different from a wallet that any of us might carry in or out of uniform. Just a plain, ordinary looking wallet. I opened it and what I saw stopped me cold. Somewhat crudely carved in the leather was the shape of an oval.

Within the outline of the oval was a photograph of a young man standing with a young woman. I wiped his face, now bloody from our battle, with a cloth to reveal his features. He was in the picture. I thought about the picture I carried of my girlfriend.

I was momentarily breathless as I looked at the man we had just killed. I hadn't noticed his features when I first saw him. I didn't see him as a person.

He was just a dead enemy soldier. Now I saw him differently. I saw him a man, someone who loved and was loved.

For reasons that have little logic I repositioned his body to be recumbent so as to look more comfortable.

I took his rifle and gear, but left his helmet, which I straightened out to look more dignified. As I placed his hands in his lap I noticed his watch.

I left it, as the last thing I wanted was a souvenir of this encounter. I was glad that the rest of the patrol was busy doing other things and that no one was noticing this little ritual.

I left his wallet as identification in case he was found, and I wondered about the girl. Who was she? Was she his wife? Was she his girlfriend? Did she ever find out what happened to him? What became of her?

It's been over 40 years and I still think about the picture in that wallet.

What I do know is that serving in combat changes a person. Mostly I think the changes are for the good.

We matured, gained insights, discovered honor and camaraderie, and learned to love just being alive. As our Veterans Day group has talked over the years I also know that some changes are difficult. Horrible memories may fade, but they persist in visiting us when we least expect it.

It is exactly this mélange that makes us seek out each other, especially on Veterans Day.

Today we honor military veterans. Appreciate what the day represents. Find a veteran and thank him or her. Make a commitment that between now and next Veterans Day you will visit a veteran who is confined to home or institution.

We honor our veterans by honoring those now in uniform. When you come across one of our military men or women thank them -- you'll also be honoring our veterans.

Lickness, a resident of San Diego and general counsel for Golden Eagle Insurance, served in the infantry in the Vietnam War. Two of his nephews served in the war in Iraq. Only one came home alive. This piece is dedicated to Cpl. Jeffrey B Starr, USMC, killed in action 30May2005.

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Bill Nehmzow 6:17pm January 16, 2015

I was on Berchestgarden as well in 69' I served with the 270th Combat Support Signal Co. We lost a brother in the June 14th sapper attack. The sapper got through permiter security and tossed a satchel charge in our relay van. I don't think you closed the base right after as I was inserted on the 16th with a new crew and equipment. We were there for the August attack when we caught the sappers with a second mad minute directly following the first. We closed Berchestgarden in early September. RIP Bob Brown.

Glenn Scarborough 3:02pm March 10, 2010

I was on Fire Base Berchtesgaden it was 1969 not 1968 we opend it up in april of 1969 closed it in June after we got hit. I was with C btry 2nd 11th Arty 101 abn div I stayed to clean up the dead. Our unit went on raid that morning 14 june 1969. I have photos of my Gun it was 155 toed its name was Pure Hell. I was 27 year old over there and it was no diferant than any war it was kill or be killed. Glenn Scarborough,HULL.GA

Gary Bright 1:20pm November 11, 2009

Great article for Veterans day. I served in Southeast Asia 69-70 USAF. I hope the people in this country don't forget our veterans, but feel sometimes we do forget them and I find this very sad. Need more education in our schools about what the veterans have done for this country over the many years and help our young people understand what they have done to give us the freedoms we have. Thank you again, Gary Bright, have a great veterans day.