Uncommon Valour

Uncommon Valour

My father died last week. He had just turned 70 years old. The official diagnosis was Agent Orange Related Parkinson’s Disease. The official cause of death was asphyxiation. He died choking on his blood. And though he may have died on January 29, 2020, the truth is, Agent Orange exposure killed him 50 years before. He died a slow, painful death.

He told my mom once that being a soldier was the only thing he was ever really good at. Yet, after doing his duty (with honors), he came back to a nation that spit and yelled at him. Can you imagine?

For the first two years of their marriage, my mom was the recipient of many a late-night trip to the floor as my father would grab her and toss her, yelling “incoming.” The only story I had ever heard about his time in Vietnam was one in which he was riding shotgun, holding an M-16 rifle, as their convoy passed through a small village. As was often the case, the villagers in town would gather on each side of the road as the soldiers would throw provisions and food. The young Vietnamese children would run up yelling, “chop, chop,” which meant candy.

My Dad said he often knew when they were among the Viet Cong because no one gathered. But this particular day, as the crowd parted, a young Vietnamese girl about four years old walked from the crowd and stopped about 20 feet ahead of them. My father saw the grenade. As the truck stopped, he got out and slowly made his way over to her. He spoke to her in Vietnamese and asked her to drop it. He asked again, and he asked again. In one failed swoop, my father made a decision that changed his life forever. He never got over that little girl.

I get pretty indignant when I see opportunists and careerists treat our Constitution like a placemat. Why have good men and women died brave and honorable deaths while the reprehensible cowards and power-hungry seem to thrive? I fear I’ll never know.

The only other story I have heard about my Dad, and Vietnam, came last week at his service. This letter was written by one of my Dad’s platoon buddies. Jay had reached out to my Dad via email before he died, but my Dad could not respond. So after letting the pastor know about the email, he decided to reach out to him. This was his letter.

Hello Reverend Apple,
Thanks so much for letting me know about Glenn’s passing. I am sorry to hear that he is gone and wish we might have had the opportunity to reconnect. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.
Glenn did indeed save my life on Easter Sunday 1969 (April 6) in a clearing in the jungle near Black Virgin Mountain Nui Be Den) in Vietnam. Our company’s lead platoon was ambushed earlier in the afternoon, with two men either killed or badly injured laying in the clearing, exposed to fire from North Vietnamese Army soldiers concealed in well-camouflaged bunkers. Our platoon was called forward to try to reach the casualties, and the platoon leader instructed me to send a fire team (3-4 guys) forward toward the nearest body to pull it back. Leading the team, I crawled across the clearing but was suddenly hit by a burst of fire from an AK-47, which tore my rifle from my hands and also punctured my left lung, just missed my heart, and wedged within an inch of my spine. About the same time, a rocket-propelled grenade went off in a tree at the edge of the clearing, and I was also spattered with shrapnel. I did some serious praying, and God sent Glenn Dale and the platoon leader across that bullet-swept field to pull me back. The enemy was still very much present, as I was shot again in the leg after being pulled back to our side of the clearing.
I suspect that Glenn did not receive an award for bravery for his actions that day (enlisted men seldom did), but he certainly deserved to do so, as he openly exposed himself to the enemy fire in order to carry me to safety. Without his action, I would certainly have died there and then.
Later in the afternoon, I almost missed the medevac helicopter, as they thought I was a goner. When I finally lay on an operating table at a MASH hospital in Tay Ninh, a priest gave me the last rites. You cannot imagine my surprise when I awoke the next morning. I spent the rest of 1969 in military hospitals until discharged – from the hospital and the army – on December 31, 1969.
Please express my condolences and my eternal thanks to Glenn’s family for sending him to me on that Easter over a half-century ago.
Jay Phillips
P.S. The two men we were hoping to rescue, Angelo Figueroa and Melvin Lee, did not survive, and their names are on panel 27 West, lines 24 and 25 of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.

I love you Dad.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

The other day I got a letter addressed to me from AARP.  Yep, the American Association of Retired People.  I did a double-take and was immediately incensed that someone thought I was old enough to get a letter from Matt McCoy.  I tore it up and haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  

The truth is, I’m turning fifty in November.  When I was a kid, I thought that a fifty-year-old person was old.  I mean, they weren’t old, old, but they were definitely old.   Then again, anyone over the age of 30 was old.  But what I am is neither young nor old.  I am no longer sprightly, yet not weary.  I am not foolhardy, but not wary and skittish either.   Sandwiched by aging parents and younger children, I am somewhere in the middle of all these things.  

If the year were 1921, I would have already lived 83.3% of my life. Yep, exactly one hundred years ago, the average lifespan for a woman was sixty-one and sixty-years-old for a man. Thanks to substantial health improvements (although this is declining in the US), we are all living longer lives.  They say fifty is the new forty, and technically it’s true.  Globally our lifespan has doubled since 1900.  We live longer, but our quality of life is diminishing, and the stigma of getting older still exists.  

For me, middle-age hasn’t meant much. According to my doctor, I have the bloodwork of a healthy twenty-five-year-old. I credit my plant-based diet, my yoga practice, and my love for physical activities. I have also recently taken up kayaking and trail running. After years of pounding the pavement, I am now more of a dirt and roots kind of girl. I am seeking things that challenge me physically and mentally push me out of my comfort zone. I am, as Thomas admonishes, “raging against the dying of the light.” I know that it is up to me to keep the flame burning bright. I think, therefore, I am.

But if age really is a state of mind, then I will leave you with the wise words of my Guru.  

“Growing old is a long-established habit of losing the authority to remain vital. It’s an approval and disapproval that’s passed through generations of DNA with body language, eye and facial expressions, tones of voice, gestures with the hands, and countless conversations about exhaustion. Staying young and vibrant throughout life — mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually — requires maintenance of an authority to be unique and never give up. This means honoring the cells of your body; the ideas in the mind, and the freedom to relate in a heart-to-heart way with everyone.

When conscious of this, you grow wiser and remain vital, and life’s stresses dissolve in a healthy awareness. Human beings need to capture this immortal authority. . . random traits with no real value, or vitality that do no good. To remain youthful, vital and healthy, you must give yourself permission to be full of yourself, and then validate this freedom. This freedom discovers the true nature of evolution . . . a step by step process of progress. It’s a trial with errors and healthy forgiveness with loving kindness . . . a check and balance that assures the ultimate accuracy of your growth. This allows you to keep up in the midst of “normal” doubt and the “looks” you’ll receive for impacting the Earth so dramatically.

Our prayer is that you choose to remain this vital and free, rather than following the habits of the crowd; that your ideas remain as tolerant of others as you expect others to be of you; that you connect your physical world to your immortal soul, and allow this marriage to guide you through a kind and loving life on Earth that extends the envelope everywhere, and does this well beyond one hundred years.” —Guru Singh Yogi