Freedom’s Voices: Incredible Stories Of American Veterans
“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” ~Thomas Jefferson
In a world where politicians, actors and musicians seem to be the only voices heard, often complaining, politically charged or completely incoherent (Dennis Rodman’s recent screed while in North Korea) we need to hear more stories which remind us that there are real people who may not be well known, but are worth hearing about.
Last month, I wrote about a few people, voices of regular people who inspired those who knew them. The feedback I received from others, many of them Veteran friends was amazing, yet proof that there are so many more stories out there which need to be shared. I plan to keep sharing them because their voices are important, even if they are not celebrities, they are Freedom’s Voices.
This story came to me from a Veteran friend who was honored to have served with Tom Walsh on the Veteran’s Council in their home state of Wyoming.
Tom was a lieutenant colonel in the United States Army. He enlisted in the Army at the age of 16 as a private. He served in the Army for thirty-seven years, during which he made 2,054 parachute jumps and was also a marksmanship instructor who trained recruits for the Vietnam War. He received the Army Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Army Achievement Medal, and Armed Forces Reserve Medal with two oak leaf clusters during his years in service.
After his military service, Tom Walsh served in the Wyoming House of Representatives and was an active member of his community. He was a teacher, principle, and assistant superintendent and also taught college. He also served as vice Mayor and Mayor of Caspar until he stepped down for health reasons.
Much of what endeared him to fellow Veterans however was how hard he worked on Veterans issues. Tom was honored by the Salvation Army in 2009, where he cooked breakfast one morning every week for the homeless. Even though he regrets that he never saw combat duty in Vietnam, Tom made fourteen trips, all at his own expense to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand to investigate reports of American military servicemen being held there after the end of the Vietnam War. It is because of his efforts that the POW/MIA flag flies on Wyoming’s state buildings.
Tom Walsh passed away January 1, 2010 from leukemia, and Military honors were performed by the Wyoming Army National Guard and the Natrona County United Veterans Council. Walsh had himself participated through the council in more than 550 military burials, many of which were also attended by my friend. About Tom, he told me,
I met Tom when I had the honor of joining him on the Veteran’s Council, and we buried many men honorably and with conviction. He was most proud of being a teacher in high school. He was proud of his service, yes, but he was a great man and I would have loved to have him as a teacher of mine. Hell, he was a teacher. He taught me the meaning of humility and we shared one another’s respect and honor for those that we buried. I don’t know what else to say about this man, other than he was the cream of the crop, and we could use such men in our Government once again.
Many people have heard of Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez affectionately known as Tango Mike. If not, you’re in for an incredible story.
Roy P. Benavidez was born in poverty in Texas to his Yaqui Indian mother and Mexican-American father, Salvador Benavidez. When he was seven, Roy and his younger brother moved to El Campo, where their grandfather, uncle and aunt raised them along with eight cousins after both of his parents died.
He dropped out of school at the age of 15 to work full-time to help support the family. In 1952 Roy joined the Texas Army National Guard and then in 1955 enlisted in the United States Army. He completed his airborne training and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in 1959. In 1965 he was sent to South Vietnam as an advisor to an ARVN infantry regiment. He stepped on a land mine during a patrol and was evacuated to the United States, where doctors at Fort Sam Houston concluded he would never walk again. Refusing to give up, against doctors’ orders, he began training nightly in an attempt to walk again. After over a year, he walked out of the hospital in July 1966, as he was determined to return to combat in Vietnam.
Roy returned to Fort Bragg to begin training for the elite Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and he became a member of the 5th Special Forces Group and returned to South Vietnam in January 1968.
On May 2, 1968, a 12-man Special Forces team was surrounded by a NVA battalion. Benavidez heard the radio appeal for help and boarded a helicopter to respond. Armed only with a knife, he jumped from the helicopter carrying a medical bag and rushed to join the trapped team. Benavidez came under constant enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, including being shot in the head and leg, saved the lives of at least eight men by dragging survivors to a helicopter. The pilot was shot and killed as he was trying to take off; the copter crashed and was burning as Roy then unloaded the wounded. He was stabbed by VC wielding a bayonet, shot and received shrapnel wounds over a six hour fight. It was determined that he had a total of 37 separate wounds. He was believed to be dead after finally being zipped up in a body bag. He managed to spit in the face of a medic, letting nearby medical personnel know that he was still alive and evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center. For his heroism, the Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.
In 1973, after more detailed accounts became available, Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Ralph R. Drake insisted that Benavidez receive the Medal of Honor. By then, however, the time limit on the medal had expired. An appeal to Congress resulted in an exemption for Benavidez but it wasn’t until February 24, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan presented Roy P. Benavidez the Medal of Honor. Reagan reportedly turned to the press and said: “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it“.
Master Sergeant Roy P. Benavidez passed away at the age of 63 in 1998, but his memory and incredible story lives on in those who knew him and others who are inspired by him still today. For a more colorful account of the battle, you can read it here.
This last story is about a man I had the honor to meet last summer. I proudly called him my Iron Man of Metz.
Pat Thornton was an incredible man, one described by another Veteran friend of mine as “a walking national treasure.”
He sure was. I met him through my friend, who along with other Veterans, volunteer at the Military Heritage Museum in Punta Gorda, Florida. I had the pleasure of visiting the Museum a few times, and had heard stories about some of the other men who work there, but especially Mr. Pat who served in the 95th Infantry under General Patton in Europe, one of the Iron Men of Metz.
Mr. Pat was an amazing artist, having sketched scenes of his experiences in France during the war. He enjoyed volunteering at the Museum, making photo and video tributes and sharing them with friends and family. I am honored to have a small collection of special DVDs which he filmed at the 50 year reunion celebration in Metz, one featuring his drawings with a detailed narration of each, and also videos made of interviews with ex POW’s from Vietnam’s Hanoi Hilton and with a few of the original Doolittle Raiders among others which are invaluable treasures.
While visiting with Mr. Pat, I heard many personal stories about his experiences, his unit, about getting wounded. He and a couple of men had been in a French village when they were ambushed by Germans. Mr. Pat and the others hunkered down for a little while, shooting back when they could, then they tried to escape, while under enemy fire. Mr. Pat and a couple of others were shot, yet they helped each other escape, thankfully making their way back to the rest of their unit where he was taken to a field hospital. There were no available surgeons to take the bullets out of his leg, so he had to wait a few weeks before seeing a surgeon (who were all at the front lines) and by that time, the wounds had healed over. The surgeon told him if he removed the bullets, he’d have to stay in the hospital another couple of months to re heal. Mr. Pat told the surgeon to forget it. He went back to his unit and back to the war, carrying within him, those same German bullets.
There were so many other stories he told me that day, but too numerous to tell here. I will never forget my time spent that day with an incredible man who loved to share his experiences in a way you could almost feel as if you were there. I’ve heard that Mr. Pat made an impression on everyone he met- I can believe it, because he left an impression in my heart that will never leave me.
Sadly we lost our Mr. Pat, this past November. Our Greatest Generation is leaving us too fast. The day my friend told me of Mr. Pat’s passing, he included the following poem that many Veterans know. Thank you tinlizzieowner for introducing me to Mr. Pat, I will never forget my Iron Man of Metz.
Final Inspection ~ Sgt. Joshua Helterbran
The Soldier stood and faced God, Which must always come to pass
He hoped his shoes were shining, Just as bright as his brass.
“Step forward you Soldier, How shall I deal with you?
Have you always turned the other cheek? To My Church have you been true?”
The Solider squared his shoulders and said “No, Lord, I guess I ain’t
Because those of us who carry guns Can’t always be a saint.
I’ve had to work on Sundays And at times my talk was tough,
And sometimes I’ve been violent,Because the world is awfully rough.
But, I never took a penny That wasn’t mine to keep.
Though I worked a lot of overtime When the bills got just to steep,
And I never passed a cry for help Though at times I shook with fear,
And sometimes, God forgive me,I’ve wept unmanly tears.
I know I don’t deserve a place, Among the people here.
They never wanted me around , Except to calm their fears.
If you’ve a place for me here,Lord, It needn’t be so grand,
I never expected or had too much, But if you don’t, I’ll understand.”
There was silence all around the throne Where the saints had often trod
As the Soldier waited quietly, For the judgement of his God.
“Step forward now, you Soldier,You’ve borne your burden well.
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets,You’ve done your time in Hell.”