Memorial Day has become a company holiday, an excuse for a three-day weekend, an opportunity for retail sales promotions and the beginning of the summer season. We have forgotten what it is all about.
Unfortunately, with less than 1% of the population in the military and the total number of veterans shrinking every day as we lose our greatest generation of World War II veterans, the general population doesn’t have a personal connection to Memorial Day.
Memorial Day was started after the Civil War when, because of the horrific number of casualties, most of the country had experienced a loss of a family member or a friend during the fighting.
In 1971, Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday during the Vietnam War. We honor on this day the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military.
For those of us who have served in combat, Memorial Day has special meaning. Combat changes a person, and you never forget the men around you who did not make it home. Sometimes, when memory gets foggy, you may forget what someone looked like or maybe a complete name, but the ones closest to you are always there. Memorial Day forces us to remember them and their sacrifice.
I remember one person, Ronald Natalie. He was a 21-year-old supply clerk who was stationed with me at battery headquarters in Pleiku, Vietnam. I was the executive officer in the battery, and he was a SP4 and one of the enlisted in the HQ platoon. I don’t remember if he was drafted or volunteered.
He was a pleasant man from the Midwest – Monroe, Mich., I believe, and he had many friends. I never had a close relationship with Natalie but saw him often during daily operations.
What I remember vividly is his last day before the ambush. Natalie came to me and asked for permission to go to a distant fire base by Jeep to say goodbye to some of his friends.
I thought it was a bad idea with less than two weeks to go before he shipped home, but I could not dissuade him from going so I insisted that he take our most experienced combat soldier, our motor pool sergeant, who was on his third tour in Vietnam and was maybe 22 years old.
I remember telling them to stay alert, stay sober and don’t get on the highway late. If you leave late, you might miss the road-clearing detail that sweeps the highway for stragglers or broken equipment before dark. After that sweep, “Charlie” or the Viet Cong, owns the road. Unfortunately, they left late, and traveling fast hoped to catch up with the sweeper gunships.
At about 5 p.m., I received a call that my Jeep was involved in an ambush about 20 miles south of Pleiku, and an infantry unit from the 4th Division was heading out in choppers to find a missing GI who was blown out of a Jeep during the ambush.
I asked if we should organize a rescue effort by road and was told to wait at the Pleiku hospital for details. I organized two vehicles to transport us out of Artillery Hill, where the battery was located across the town to the hospital on the other side.
We arrived and waited in the back of the emergency room near the pad, where the choppers land. While we waited, a medevac arrived with a Special Forces team wounded in action across the border.
It was chaos as the medical team tried to save those that they could and triage the rest. After watching for some time as the doctors performed surgery there in the emergency room to save several severely wounded, I wandered off into the building and directly behind the receiving room was an alcove with bodies stacked on gurneys for processing. It must have been a busy day. Only the feet were visible and each had a dog tag wired to a toe.
A few hours later after dark a chopper came in with my sergeant and the body of Natalie. They had found him on the side of the highway where he fell.
I was asked to identify the body and was taken to a shed near the chopper pad where bodies were stored until they could be processed. My medic and I pulled Natalie’s body out for identification but it was impossible to recognize him since he took a direct hit from a rocket-propelled grenadeor RPG. My medic told me to find his dog tags and search his uniform and pockets for identification, and together we completed the task and agreed that this was Natalie.
We collected our exhausted sergeant and headed back to the battery across town. We were on edge because it was dark, and the trip was outside the wire and we were a small detachment with little firepower to defend ourselves except for our M16s.
We arrived safely and everyone in our unit wanted information. My sergeant was emotionally drained and devastated by what had happened. He held himself responsible and broke down in tears pleading with me to send him home.
This was his third tour, and he had seen enough. He was damaged, and all I could do was assure him that he made the right decisions and he could not have saved Natalie. In fact, a colonel called me that night and praised the actions of our sergeant.
I was told that “he was some soldier, and we should be proud of him.” He had performed superbly but all I could do was tell him that I would try to get him home early. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do and he was still in the country serving out his tour when I left a few months later.
Memorial Day, to me, is all about Natalie and the sacrifice he made in 1970. I had many men wounded during my tour, and I am sure that several did not survive. It is Natalie whom I remember.
I have always felt responsible for his death because I let him go despite my gut feeling that it was a mistake. I did learn from that mistake and demanded for the rest of my tour that anyone “short” sit tight, stay bored and go home in one piece.
I was lucky and survived Vietnam, but he did not. My life has been full with a wife who loves me, children I am proud of and grandchildren I can enjoy at the end of my life. Natalie lost his life and missed that opportunity. I will always remember him every year on Memorial Day.
CHASE WICKERSHAM, U.S. Army Veteran, Vietnam and Director, Goodwill of Orange County’s Tierney Center for Veteran Services,