A September column was about a friend of mine, Rev. Bobby Ward, who has been diagnosed with ALS. I visited with Bobby and his wife, Teresa, in their home before writing that story. Teresa mentioned that Lou Gehrig’s Disease has been connected to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant which was used extensively in Vietnam. The wounds of war are not always readily seen.
I saw Bobby and Teresa a second time in late September. I knew he had served in Vietnam in the distant past but not much else. His youth, like that of many others, was severely disrupted by answering the call of his country. He’s thankful to be among those who were upright when they came home. He knows too well that many didn’t.
Bobby was born January 4, 1947, in Ashburn, Georgia. When he was in the third grade his family moved to Almon, a small town between Conyers and Covington. On his 19th birthday in 1966 he received his draft notice from the Army. As an only child he could have gotten an exemption, but he didn’t think it was right to stay home when others were packing their bags.
It was a sad day in March for their small family as he left for basic training in Ft. Benning. When he spoke of his mother and their closeness, it was obvious his words came from a place deep within his heart. “I was her baby boy, “he said softly, pausing to take a long sip of water. “My father wasn’t one to show a lot of emotion. I saw him cry that day for the first time.” As Bobby described those parting moments in Almon, it reminded me that the pains of war reach far beyond the battlefield.
Bobby met his future wife, Teresa Martin, the day before he was leaving for Vietnam. It was an uneventful encounter in which neither of them heard wedding bells. He had no interest in small talk. She thought he was somewhat conceited. Bobby’s focus was on a very uncertain future. The plane he would soon board had little room for romance.
Bobby was assigned to a transportation outfit at Camp Red Ball. Their convoys hauled gas and diesel that was pumped from river barges. They carried other things including 55-gallon drums of Agent Orange. Years later it would be recognized as a contributor to multiple health issues including ALS.
In the Tet Offensive of 1968, the Viet Cong staged their biggest uprising of the war. They tried to overrun the transportation compound. Bobby recalls hearing the sirens blaring at three a.m. while soldiers scampered for bunkers. Daybreak was announced with bombs, helicopters, and other enemy fire.
Bobby was in the back of a truck when he heard the whizzing sound of a mortar. “Incoming!” shouted several people. It hit about three feet away but bounced before landing again and exploding. He sometimes wonders why he was spared while others were not.
He spent ten months and 22 days in Vietnam. When the plane bringing him home landed at Hartsfield International Airport, Jane Fonda was there to greet them with a group of protestors. “Baby killers!” they screamed along with other hurtful words. There weren’t many welcoming committees for the tired young soldiers of Vietnam.
In April of 2000 Bobby went to the VA Hospital in Dublin to see Danny Mays, a fellow Vietnam veteran. They knew it was likely their last visit. Bobby stood by the bed just before he left and said, “Thank you for your service and welcome home.” Danny told Bobby it was the first time anyone had thanked him. He died two days later.
There are no doubt other veterans who have never been thanked. Danny’s story is a poignant reminder that it’s already too late for some.
November 11th is Veterans Day. It’s designated to officially honor those who served in our military. It’s also an excellent time to offer our personal expressions of gratitude. It can be as simple as a card or a phone call. Or maybe a nursing home visit with an old vet who doesn’t have much company. I have a veteran friend who loves warm buttered biscuits with pear preserves. Maybe you do too.
If we hesitate it may be too late. The wounds of war are not always readily seen. To the men and women who have sacrificed to protect our freedom, “Thank you for your service and welcome home.”