Joint Base Lewis McChord near Seattle, Washington, recently did something that made me want to cheer: they awarded two former Vietnam vets the Silver Stars that should have been given them 47 years ago. I am convinced that the wait made the honor that much sweeter, especially seeing what a similar situation dated from WWII did for our own local hero, Theo Calvin, shortly before he died. Theo and four others were awarded the French Legion of Honor medal in 2013. Indeed, Theo went out on a high note.
The two Silver Star recipients are named Rick Adler and Gary Birka. They were infantrymen in a unit that was nicknamed the Jungle Warriors, part of the Seventh ID. In August of 1969, they were ambushed and wounded. They continued to help other wounded brothers despite the fact that they needed medical care, too. While credited with saving lives, Adler is quick to say that “Everyone saved lives that day.”
No one knows if the application for their awards was misplaced, or what exactly happened, and for decades, they were truly what is known as unsung heroes. However, their commanding officer, Tom Pearson, once he was made aware of what had happened, got right to work to rectify the situation.
Birka said something that made me cringe as well as celebrate the grace I don’t deserve and received decades ago. What makes his statement even more challenging is the understated way in which he talked about the fact that vets returning from Vietnam “were not treated well.” He was correctly talking about the person I used to be. I was one who, if I had been at what was known back then only as Fort Lewis in 1970, would not have “treated them well.”
The war in Vietnam began 50 years ago, and for the rest of my life I will be thanking those who fought in it. They deserve special thanks for putting up with people like me. A few months ago I had the chance to repent to Lt. Jim Campbell, a ‘Nam vet who went on to be an executive in the Ralston Purina Company, and who now supports his highly successful wife Wendy in her Juice Plus business. We were at a national Juice Plus conference, and he was putting away audio visual equipment after one of his wife’s presentations. I squatted down near him as he coiled up cables, explained who I had been, and asked him to forgive me. I later gave him a copy of my book, A Ballad For Baghdad: An Ex-Hippie Chick Vietnam War Protestor’s Three Years in Iraq. He teared up, as did I, and told me that no one had ever done that before. I would to God that I am given the same opportunity with Adler and Birka.
When the men were awarded their Stars at a special ceremony, Birka said, “It kind of feels good.” Adler said, “It’s amazing.” He then added, “If it meant waiting 47 years, one month, and one day for that to happen, then I’m OK with that.”
So am I, gentlemen, so am I. May your Stars shine even more brightly with age.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner