‘I did make it home’

Vietnam veteran shares experience, importance of Memorial Day

By Rick Grimes | Sterling Columnist

May 19, 1970.

Lt. Rick Grimes in Vietnam
Lt. Rick Grimes is pictured in Vietnam.

The woman tossed and turned all night but finally got out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and finished packing.  She would be getting on a plane in a few hours and flying to Los Angeles to meet her son.  She was excited but anxious nonetheless.  Her son had been in Vietnam for a full year and today was the day he would be returning.  Her excitement, of course, was that he would soon be out of harm’s way; her trepidation was based on her knowledge that anything could happen.  She had a friend whose son was killed three weeks before he was to come home.  And she had heard about soldiers who were killed on the last day of service in Vietnam.  She was trying to push away those thoughts when the phone rang at 5 a.m.  She screamed. 

The woman’s husband took the phone.  It was the American Red Cross.  They wanted them to know that their son wouldn’t be coming home today.  He was in the hospital.  No, they didn’t know why he was in the hospital.  No, they didn’t know how badly he was hurt.  “We just got this message to call you,” they said.  “Sorry.  Goodbye.”

On the phone for the next couple of hours — but to no avail — they made calls to everyone they thought might be able to tell them something.  Then the young man’s father, a World War II veteran, remembered an old army buddy.  At 6’7, Bill Elder had been recruited from the army to join the U.S. Secret Service — the agency responsible, among other duties, to protect the President of the United States. He had worked in the administration of four presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and now Nixon.  It was a long shot but they made the call.  “Bill. We need your help. Our son…”

On the other side of the world, the young man in the hospital bed was awakened when the door flung open. A brigadier general flanked by two colonels, a physician and some other hangers-on burst into the young man’s room and stood at the foot of his hospital bed.  The general asked the young man to tell him his name and asked him to repeat it.  He turned to the physician who nodded his agreement. The general spun around and, followed by his entourage, left the room.  A nurse looked at the young man and said, “You must be pretty important!”  But the young man thought he was in trouble.  The rumors spread quickly among the staff.  It seems that the hospital had received a call directly from the White House.  For some reason, they were interested in this young man.

Earlier the day before, the young man was going through the routine procedures necessary for separating from Vietnam.  But he wasn’t feeling well.  He feared he might be having a relapse of Malaria — an awful experience from some months before.  He stopped by the clinic in the hopes of securing some quinine — the only treatment for malaria at the time but instead, and against his will, they threw him in the hospital. “We don’t send sick soldiers home,” said the attending physician — and the next thing he knew, he was begging an American Red Cross volunteer from his hospital bed to get a message to his parents that he would be delayed a few days —that he wasn’t hurt or worse.   

Six days later, on May 25, 1970, the young man was released from the hospital, flew to Los Angeles, and met his mother. 

That was 50 years ago today — on this Memorial Day, May 25, 2020 — a special day to me because I was that young man.   At the time I was angry with the botched communications that upset my parents, but eternally grateful every day since that, unlike the 58,514 that we honor today on this Memorial Day, I did make it home.

By Rick Grimes | Sterling Columnist

Rick Grimes, executive vice president for Affinity Living Group and former president of Argentum, is a senior living expert. Grimes is also a Vietnam Veteran, serving as a lieutenant and 2nd Platoon Leader for the U.S. Army’s 75th Infantry Rangers (Airborne) from 1969-70.

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