Reprinted with my good friend Marion Sturkey’s permission.
A high school senior in Ohio, Adrienne, got an English class assignment. She had to research and write a thesis. And, she could pick her topic.
Adrienne dipped back into our Nation’s history. She reached back to a time before she was born, back to a time of national turmoil, back to the time of the war in Vietnam. Today, that long-ago conflict is a mere footnote in her history books. Who fought? Why? Who survived? Who died? Who were the heroes?
From her Nation’s long struggle during the war in Vietnam, Adrienne picked her topic: WHO ARE THE HEROES?
An exhaustive search began. As part of her research, young Adrienne posted a notice on the web-site of the USMC Vietnam Helicopter Association. For the Marine Corps helicopter crews who flew and fought in Vietnam, she asked: “Who are the heroes?”
The many responses included an e-mail reply from Marion Sturkey, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He wrote not of glory and valor. He never mentioned anything he did, or tried to do. Instead, he wrote of basic human virtues: commitment, loyalty, brotherly love, and a cause greater than self. His reply to a young American schoolgirl is quoted below, verbatim:
March 6, 2001
I understand you are researching a project about heroism during the war in Vietnam. I commend you for the extent of your research.
“Who are the heroes?” you ask. I had the privilege of knowing many heroes during my time in Vietnam in 1966-1967. But, I doubt they are the type of men you would recognize as such. They were simply common men. Actually, “boys” would be more accurate with regard to many of them. They were not the “Follow Me!” type you may have seen in the movies. I have never heard any of them call themselves brave, although I witnessed what you would call bravery on a daily basis.
So, who are the heroes? They were the men (or “boys,” many just a year or so older than yourself) who believed in each other, who relied on each other, and who sacrificed for each other. They were bound together by simple loyalty to their fellow Marines, their friends. They shared an unspoken trust and responsibility. Each knew that no matter how grave his peril, his friends would try to save him. They might fail and lose their own lives in the attempt. But, we all knew that they would try. We each had the same obligation. When one of our friends was in peril, we had to try, despite the danger. We had no choice. That was the pact we made. That was our code.
Heroes were soft-spoken men like Jim McKay, a helicopter gunner. Jim had survived his scheduled time in combat and was scheduled to fly home on the night of August 8, 1966. But, that night he learned that four of his friends were cut off, surrounded, fighting for their lives in the dark. Jim refused to leave Vietnam. He volunteered to fly on a rescue mission. His helicopter was shot down.
Heroes were men like Joe Roman, a helicopter pilot. On January 26, 1967, he answered the plea for help from Marines trapped on a ridge in Laos. They warned him of the danger, but he disregarded the warning and flew down to attempt a rescue. He, too, got shot down. Wounded in the head and buttocks, he survived. But, he never talked about it afterwards. When questioned, he would shrug and say that it was “nothing anyone else wouldn’t do.” He was right. Incidentally, Joe died last year. I attended his internment in Arlington National Cemetery.
There were thousands of such heroes. I am honored to have had the privilege to have served with them. Simply stated, they believed in a cause greater than themselves. They believed in each other. They knew the danger, but they also knew their responsibility and their code. They shared a brotherly love that no earthly circumstance can shatter. They, along with the 58,000-plus names on The Wall in Washington, DC, are true heroes.
The heroes who survived are now in their fifties or sixties. You know them as fathers, uncles, neighbors, maybe teachers. They have jobs and families. They pay taxes and make our society function. They don’t label themselves as heroes. Yet, they are American Patriots in every sense of the words. And, deep down inside, they still maintain that undying brotherly love for the men with whom they served in Vietnam, thirty years or so ago. Without question, they are your heroes.
I hope the foregoing will be of assistance to you.
Adrienne got many such responses. In appreciation, she titled her thesis with the motto of the USMC Vietnam Helicopter Association: “Saepe Expertus, Semper Fidelis, Fratres Aeterni” (Often Tested, Always Faithful, Brothers Forever). In her thesis she quoted text from the book, “BONNIE-SUE: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam.” She noted that, even today, “Marines religiously state ‘Semper Fidelis’ at the closing of letters and e-mails” sent to each other. As Adrienne now knows, the code is still alive and well.
Adrienne submitted her thesis. On May 1, 2001, she got the verdict. She joyfully posted another notice on the helicopter association web-site. Her notice begins: “Hey, Y’all . . . it received an ‘A’ with flying colors!”
Adrienne, who plans to attend the University of Akron, added: “This has been the most beneficial project of my high school career. I learned the most I ever could have, and will take so much with me for the rest of my life.”
PHOTO: Sturkey stands by his waiting H-46 helicopter at Marble Mountain [ Vietnam ] in the summer of 1966.
Be sure to check out some of Sturk’s books, must reads!