On August 30, 2012, William T. Brown, Donald M. Shue, and Gunther H.Wald, three army sergeants first class, who have been missing since November 5, 1969, when their patrol was attacked and overrun in Laos, near the Vietnamese border by a numerically superior enemy force, were laid to rest in a heroes’ ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.
The three men were Special Forces soldiers assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s super secret Studies and Observation Group, known as MACV-SOG, a unit that was responsible for reconnaissance behind North Vietnamese lines. Experienced recon soldiers, they were veterans of many such patrols, accompanied by nine ethnic minority Montagnard tribesmen. Only six of the Montagnards survived the attack. The survivors, when recovered, said that the last they saw of the three Americans, they were lying on the ground, gravely wounded; Brown, who was a staff sergeant at the time had been shot in the side, and the other two, Staff Sergeant Wald and Specialist Fourth Class Shue, had been seriously wounded by grenade fragments.
Inclement weather and heavy enemy activity in the area made it impossible made it impossible for US forces to enter the area to search for the missing men until November 11. During the patrol, gear belonging to Shue, the team’s radio operator, was found, but there were no traces of the men. Throughout the rest of the Vietnam War, the men were listed as missing in action (MIA), but the search to determine their fate continued. At the end of the war, they were declared presumptively dead (KIA) and promoted to Sergeant First Class, which was the practice of the Defense Department at the time.
In March 2010, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), based at Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii, found and recovered possible human remains, along with other evidence indicating the possibility that the three had at last been found. Working together with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Crystal City, Virginia, JPAC was finally able to conclusively identify the remains as belonging to Brown, Shue, and Wald.
The ceremony at Arlington Cemetery was attended by the men’s surviving family members, veterans of MAVC-SOG, and other active duty soldiers who came to pay their last respects. Soldiers from the Army’s Old Guard, stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to Arlington Cemetery, escorted the caisson carrying the remains after a memorial service at the Fort Myer Chapel. An honor guard fired a twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor that can be bestowed, and a bugler played a mournful ‘Taps.’
The sky was a clear, crystal blue, and even the birds were silent during the service at graveside. Folded American flags were presented to the family members. There were no tears, but many stood in somber reverence as their sacrifice was recounted, myself among them. I only knew Shue, a young soldier who was old beyond his years, but I remembered them, and the many like them, who, without hesitation or thought of praise, went into harm’s way in the service of their country; many who still remain unaccounted for, but for whom the search continues. They may be gone, but they are clearly not forgotten.
Their sacrifice, and the honor with which they lived their lives, will never be forgotten.
Nearly person on earth has some kind of phobia; a fear of closed spaces, spiders, or heights. I, for one, am afraid of heights. My knees get rubbery whenever I’m standing at the edge of a ledge or balcony more than three stories above the ground. That doesn’t explain how I was able to jump from perfectly sound airplanes for nearly 20 years in the army, but phobias often defy explanation.
I have one phobia, though, that’s even harder to explain than my fear of heights – I freeze up and become almost unintelligible whenever I have to talk on the phone. And, if there’s an answering machine or some other kind of mechanical voice (like a phone tree that asks you to punch in numbers to indicate your choices) I turn into a gibbering idiot. Now, this is not your normal fear of public speaking. I can talk to crowds of any size, and, other than the opening jitters which are just a signal that you’re doing something new or strange, and help to focus your mind (it does help me to focus), I have no problem. I once addressed a crowd of nearly two thousand Cham Muslims in a village in Cambodia, and I even managed to get over a couple of jokes that they understood and appreciated. Same thing goes for talking on the radio or being on TV. Once the prompter indicates my mike is open, or the red light starts shining on the camera, I go on auto pilot.
But, when I dial a phone and one of those mechanical voices answers, my brain goes into seizures. I forget my name sometimes, mumble, repeat myself, mispronounce words; in other words, I become a blathering, mindless idiot. And, no matter how I try to analyze it, I can’t figure it out. I can work through the jitters if there’s a human on the other end of the line. I’m not as glib as I am on the podium, mike, or in front of the camera, but I can at least manage to sound reasonably intelligent. I just can’t talk to machines.
There’s probably a name for it; some unpronounceable hyphenated phrase that describes the mindless terror I have for that metallic sounding voice saying, “If you wish to speak English, press one, if you don’t know what you’re doing, press the pound sign,” or something like that. I’ve usually forgotten what my choices are, or what button to press, by the time it finishes. Often, I’ve forgotten why I called in the first place. When I call someone, and their machine answers with, “I’m not at home right now, but if you’ll leave your name and number at the sound of the beep, I’ll get back to you,” my first instinct is to hang up. I think I’m afraid the darned machine knows who I am and is just waiting to laugh at my fumbling attempts to leave a message. And, the rare times when I don’t hang up, that’s just what I do; I fumble, I mumble, I forget my name and number. I just plain can’t think of what to say.
The funny thing is, when I’m on an Internet site and I encounter screens that ask me to enter numbers or other information, I have no problem. I don’t mind the written inquisition from a machine. I just don’t like having a machine question me; talk to me; analyze my choices, and then tell me, “Sorry, but I don’t recognize your answer, please repeat.”
Maybe one day, I’ll talk to a professional analyst about this hang up of mine. In the mean time, I’ll just keep doing what I usually do – hang up.