I am a VA Chaplain, and serve as the Chief of Chaplain Service at VA Maine Healthcare System. I am also a Vietnam Combat Veteran, having served as a Combat Medic with B Company, 1st Battalion, 69th Armor of the 4th Infantry Division from 1968 -1969 in the Republic of South Vietnam.
While I was heavily involved in combat throughout my year in Vietnam, some 48-plus years ago, at times it seems like it was only last week. In my ministry, I see healing occur sometimes immediately and sometimes over time. This is a story about healing that occurred over the course of 48 years in my life.
I was working in my office on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, having just spent a few days reflecting on my service in Vietnam at week in 1969. It was a week where my unit lost several members to enemy fire at a tank battle at the Ben Het Special Forces Camp. I was deep in thought when my telephone rang and a gentleman, said to me “You are my hero!”
He said that his name was Jesse McGee, “I tracked you down through Google. I was 10 years old when my brother Freddy died in Vietnam and you were the medic that was there with him.”
I remembered Freddy. He was the Army SP5 Tank Commander (TC) of a B13 tank who had died in a tragic accident on Jan. 22, 1969. In actuality, Sergeant McGee was the hero.
Jesse McGee and his wife Cathie
He was scheduled to fly home that day from Vietnam as his tour of duty was ending. Freddy’s replacement, a new sergeant had just arrived and Freddy decided to stay one more night so that he could train him. This would increase his replacement’s chances of survival and that of the tank’s crew. Freddy decided on his own, and against everyone else’s advice, to stay the night and go in to the division base camp with the next day’s ammunition supply chopper. Our tank company was in a particularly hostile area, so the usual way people that left at end of their tour was to fly in to the division base camp with the evening supply chopper the night before.
The next morning, the five tanks in our 1st Platoon lined up in a herringbone pattern. That is when the tanks line up two-by-two with the fifth tank bringing up “drag” or the last position behind the other four tanks riding two-by-two to combat hostile fire. The new TC was standing in his hatch directing and Freddy was riding, without access to the intercom, behind him on the bustle rack. For whatever reason, the new TC failed to see the danger of an obstacle in the tank’s path and alert the driver. The gun tube struck a large tree stripping the turret’s gears and turning it around so the rear bustle rack was now over the right front fender. This sudden action caused Freddy to fall from his perch and into the right tank tread of the 54-ton tank.
I was in the platoon sergeant’s tank at the rear of the formation. Suddenly, the tanks stopped and the cry for “Medic” went out. I was confused because I had heard no incoming or outgoing fire. As I jumped off the tank and ran towards the other tank crews, I wondered why they needed me. When I reached the head of the column, I saw our assistant platoon sergeant, sitting on the ground crying and rocking Freddy McGee in his arms. It was as if everything was happening in slow motion. I approached and started a visual assessment from Freddy’s boots upward. Although I saw no wounds at first, he had suffered severe trauma to the left side of his face. I witnessed him slip away.
Even in the midst of danger, we were able to dispatch a small recon scout helicopter to retrieve Freddy’s body. Freddy left the Army and Vietnam that day. He was 22 years old.
Fast forward to 1993, when Freddy McGee’s parents attended a reunion meeting of the 69th Armor Association and obtained my contact information. They wrote me a lengthy letter telling me that the Army had made Freddy’s funeral a closed casket event and that they had no information about his death besides the date of Jan. 22, 1969. I wrote them back with every detail of what had occurred. I did not hear back after sending them the letter in 1993. I believed that perhaps I should not have written such details. However, on March 7, 2017, I received the call and an email from Freddy’s brother, Jesse McGee.
The timeline for healing isn’t set in stone. It’s an individual journey for each person and family impacted by the loss of a loved one. For me, healing was in phases and peppered by those who crossed my path. For the family of Freddy, our correspondence helped heal. With Jesse’s permission, I am sharing part of the email that he sent to me with his side of the story.
I was a fat kid in school and not very popular until my big brother Freddy came home to Kittery on leave and visited my class in his Army uniform. I was so proud of him. He changed my world. My whole class wrote him letters. I have them all now. They were neatly and lovingly packed in his returned belongings. I dust them off every so often and am still so proud.
Soon after January 22nd 1969 I was a small boy 10 years old and after getting off of my school bus all of the grownups I knew were at my house. When I walked in everyone was sad. My Dad took me by the hand and walked me to my bedroom and told me to sit on the bed. He was crying and that alone had me terrified because I never saw that before. He said “Freddy’s been in an accident and won’t be coming home”.
…The Army convinced my Dad to keep the casket closed. I was in disbelief that Freddy was in it. I looked for him in every crowd and I watched every POW that ever got off a plane. …The letter you wrote gave us the closure that we all so desperately needed. I keep that letter on my phone to share. Because of you I can tell people how Freddy gave his life looking after his brothers. You changed my world, Jim, and I am forever grateful my brother!
Chief Chaplain James Luoma is a Vietnam combat Veteran of the US Army and awardee of the Bronze Star with “V” for Valor for heroic achievement in combat, where he served as a combat medic.