By Lynn R. Mitchell
Vietnam veterans. The brotherhood is strong … the unmistakable bond of men who spent their teenager years and early 20s in the jungles and rivers of Vietnam experiencing unspeakable acts of violence and horror. Today many came together at an historic church in southern Augusta County to honor one of their own whose lingering nightmares of war are now over. They were pallbearers and guests, sharing stories, and greeting one another in a way most were denied when they returned from Vietnam: “Welcome home, Brother.”
They were there for my neighbor, Ralph Dameron, 65, who passed away after years of health issues brought on by Agent Orange from his Vietnam days. He joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17. His wife said he weighed 90 p0unds soaking wet in those days. That was the perfect criteria for being a tunnel rat in ‘Nam, the elite group of volunteers who entered the maze of underground tunnels constructed by Viet Cong and used to travel throughout the country. American rats armed themselves with a knife, a pistol, and sometimes another hand gun. They faced venomous snakes including bamboo pit vipers and cobras, booby traps, impalement on sharpened bamboo spikes, bombs, bodies, ferocious dogs, and more.
Ralph was injured seven times, received three Purple Hearts, and carried shrapnel in his body until the day he died. He was hesitant to talk about his time at war but occasionally shared a story or two with fellow veterans including my Southeast Asia-Vietnam Era Air Force veteran husband. We’re still working at piecing together his story by talking with others to see what they may know.
The funeral service on a hot summer day provided closing for family and friends. Afterward, pallbearers carried the American flag-draped casket to the horse-drawn funeral coach pulled by two black horses and, slowly under the partly-cloudy skies, the procession of mourners began the journey from the church up the hill to the grave site. In every direction were views of the Shenandoah Valley surrounded by mountains.
The blustery breeze made it perfect for the twenty-one American flags lining the drive at the top of the hill with freshly-baled hay and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. A three-man U.S. Army team from Fort Lee stood at attention.
The graveside service was brief, the American flag covering the casket was folded and presented to the widow, and then a hundred red, white, and blue helium balloons were handed out to the crowd of mourners while Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings” played in the background, a song that had played at Ralph and Carolyn’s wedding 25 years earlier. As balloons were released, they rose in the blustery wind up and over the American flags and on toward the mountains … red, white, and blue dots in the sky becoming more and more distant.
And then it was over. Some talked in the cemetery … others left to go to a nearby church for lunch provided by the ladies of the community.
One who paid his respects drove from Northern Virginia. Daniel Cortez was a U.S. Marine in that distant war and when we talked earlier in the week he said he wanted to honor a fellow Vietnam vet even though he and Ralph had never met. Daniel told me he had worked with the courageous rats during the war and knew of their dangerous missions. He was grateful for what they had accomplished … they were a respected bunch of fighters with a ferocious mindset along with tenacity, fearlessness, and respectful arrogance — absolutely necessary in order to hold their own with the Viet Cong. More than that, he said he owed his life to some of those guys.
That generation is part of America’s history. Some went to Southeast Asia, some spent time stateside, and some went to other parts of the world. The rest were deployed to Vietnam. Most don’t talk much about their service. The horrors of war are a pandora’s box that is not opened. All remember how they were treated upon returning stateside. Anti-war protesters made sure they mistreated and humiliated returning heroes who had no choice at a time when the draft was in use. Yet they were advised not to wear their uniforms while traveling — in America. That can never happen again. They were spit on, had tomatoes and human waste thrown on them … protesters chanted hatefully at them. There were no ticker-tape parades … there were no welcome home celebrations … they were not thanked for their service.
Ralph’s story is not over. His wife has asked if I will write about it. I’m honored to do so. Meanwhile, we will all have to become familiar with a new normal in the neighborhood. RIP, Ralph. Thank you for your service. You will be missed.
Photos by Lynn R. Mitchell