Remember our forgotten veterans

Published 3:34 pm Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Rich Lewis, Jr. closed his eyes and was transported to another time.

He was 19 again and marching through the jungles of Vietnam.

As he talked about his “best buddy” that hailed from the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee, Lewis cracked a smile – his eyes still closed. He talked about how the two became instant friends and how they shared everything, even the letters they received from home.

Email newsletter signup

Then the story took a turn, and the smile vanished.

Lewis, his eyes still clenched tightly, recounted a day in June of 1970 when he and his buddy were preparing an ambush for the North Vietnamese soldiers. But the North Vietnamese beat them to the punch. Lewis’ buddy was shot in the head.

As Lewis shared about how he rushed to his friend’s side and attempted CPR, he fought back tears as he recalled his buddy’s last words.

“Help me.”

There was nothing more Lewis could do. His friend died that day.

Lewis, a Marine Corps veteran, is a Purple Heart recipient. He received the medal for wounds he suffered while fighting the North Vietnamese for a hill near Da Nang. Those wounds have healed. But the wounds of seeing so many of his fellow troops pay the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefields of Vietnam remain to this day.

Nearly four decades after the fall of Saigon, an event Lewis experienced firsthand, the Butler County native is still fighting a battle. Lewis, who joined the Marines because he felt every young man should serve his country, is fighting to keep the memory alive of those who valiantly fought for their country in during the Vietnam War.

To this day, Lewis can remember the looks on the faces of a plane full of Marines who had been flown back to the United States because of injuries they suffered in battle, when their plane landed and was all but surrounded by war protestors.

He can still hear them shouting things like “baby killer” at the troops.

He can remember the feelings of anger and heartache that welled up inside when he heard others criticize his buddies for fighting for their country, no matter how unpopular the war was.

Those wounds are still there.

Lewis admits that healing as begun. Folks tend to have a more positive perception of Vietnam veterans these days.

But Lewis believes they are still the least known group of veterans in our nation’s history, and after what he has experienced and seen, that cuts deep.

I’d tend to agree with him about the amount of recognition Vietnam veterans receive.

When Veterans Day rolls around, we often hear stories of World War II veterans or even Gulf War veterans. Both groups are certainly deserving of being honored.

But let’s not forget men like Lewis who bravely fought for their country because they were ordered to do so.

Let’s not forget the men like Lewis’ “best buddy” who gave their lives on the other side of the world so we can enjoy all the individual liberties that we enjoy today.

Let’s remember and honor those sacrifices. In doing so, we may just help heal the wounds of brave and honorable men like Rich Lewis, Jr.