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Memorial Day For Me. Memorial Day For You?

May 24, 2012

As a point of personal privilege, I digress from my usual subject matter to remember a friend and hero and share with you his story for Memorial Day.

Each of us approach holidays, particularly national, three-day weekend ones, differently and with different thoughts.  Perhaps too often with too little thought.

I confess, I am one of those who rarely gives much thought to many holidays other than being a respite from the stress of work.  But, also probably like you, I have one that I can never put out of my mind.  For me, it is Memorial Day.

Memorial Day is my day to remember Pat Haley.  And, to wonder, one more time, why things happen the way they do.

Memorial Day, since 1971 controversially celebrated on the last monday in May, actually originated in the late 1860’s,  independently in both the North and the South, as “Decoration Day”, a day set aside to remember those fallen in the American Civil War by decorating their graves.  Over the years the day observed evolved uniformly to May 30th of each year, became a remembrance of all Americans fallen in any war and finally received its official name by a federal law in 1967.

Ironically, that was the year Pat Haley died.  April 18, 1967

One of the reasons veteran groups objected so strenuously to the moving of Memorial Day to one of the long weekend holidays in 1971 was the anticipation of the devaluation of the day to just another long weekend for commercial events or sleeping in.

I, for one, won’t be forgetting Pat on this coming monday.

Pat Haley, to those of you who didn’t know him, was Captain Patrick Lawrence Haley, my friend and one of those many young men and women who were called, and served, in Viet Nam.

Actually, I remember and think about Pat a lot.  And, not just on Memorial Day.  And the older I get, the more he helps me appreciate everything that life offers.  But my sense of the unfairness of life also continues to build.

Pat, like me, was a recent college graduate who found himself in 1965 in Ft. Wolters, Texas in primary helicopter pilot-training as the direct result of a little naval “misunderstanding” now referred to as the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident”.

Upon entering the service as an “officer and gentleman” in 1964 courtesy of his voluntary college ROTC training in Illinois, Pat, like numerous other young men graduating at the time, had not even remotely considered Southeast Asia as a likely place to end up serving your country.  We were all still thinking how lucky we were not to be in a war in Cuba!

I met Pat in flight school the military way; alphabetically.  Everything in military training begins with a line.  And, every line in the military is alphabetical.  And, as you might suspect you also spend a lot of time waiting in line in the military.  So, somewhat naturally, most of the guys I got to know best had last names beginning with “H”!

Those incessant lines, and our friendship and conversations, continued to Ft. Rucker, Alabama, for the advanced flight training and then through final graduation from flight school.  Then that same alphabet, likely, sent us to Southeast Asia, the same month, the same year and to the same funny-sounding name base in the Central Highlands of Viet Nam, “An Khe”.  It even assigned us to the same First Squadron of the Ninth Calvary of the First Cavalry Division!

The only difference:  Pat went to Alpha Troop (company), I went to Charley.

Now you would think that friends, only yards apart, would see each other frequently.  But those were very busy times.  A recent statistic about the Viet Nam war startled me, but in retrospect, it probably was true.  In World War II, reportedly the average soldier was in combat 10 days a year.  In Viet Nam, the average soldier was in combat 240 days a year!

I would see Pat, occasionally, or at least wave as we passed, each simply trying to carry out that day’s orders.

But later, I would suddenly have to leave Viet Nam forever, without even the opportunity of saying good-bye, leaving Pat and many others I had grown to know and respect behind.

In the years that followed, it seemed I rarely had the time to track down former service friends.  Or, frankly, maybe I didn’t really want to know?  Another story for another day.

In fact, however, the more I discovered about the politics surrounding our involvement in Viet Nam (or any war post World War II) , and realized the betrayal of my young-man naiveté, the angrier I became.

And, it continues.   Likely, a “disease” of maturity?

But that awful day finally came when I discovered what had happened to Pat.

It has haunted me since.

Pat died within literally days of when he should have been getting on a plane to return home!  He, and four other of our “finest” died when their helicopter was shot out of the sky by enemy forces while on just one more of the dangerous missions he had survived daily for nearly a year.

Pat was my friend.  But Pat was also a genuine American hero.

On an earlier mission in October of 1966, Pat, disregarding his own safety during intense enemy fire flying a “gunship”, had pinned down hundreds of enemy soldiers for over an hour while defending one of our trapped units, even finally landing between the two forces to pick up a wounded comrade despite the punishment he was taking from ground fire.

Pat was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, for those actions.

Sadly, Pat and his family only received his award posthumously, and long after he was killed on his last mission six months later, because the medal-recognition-award process moves slowly.   But, frankly, he,  and many others, had performed multiple similar feats of similar sacrifice and valor, daily and repetitively over their one-year tours of combat duty, that were never recognized by any medal.

Only those who haved served can know.

Medals are not why soldiers perform their duty.  They do it for their fellow-man.  And, what makes our heros special is that they are just ordinary guys and gals who, in spite of their own fear, still do such extraordinary things.

Over the years I have reflected upon why some of our best must leave us.   I have not yet found the answer.

But I grieve for Pat and others like him who did not enjoy the next 45 years, and family and all that life can offer.  And, on my Memorial Day, I will think, again, of Pat.  And, others like Pat.  And I will, again, thank them for their sacrifice for me and all of the others he, and they, touched.

Some of you have a “Pat”.  And, you know well this Memorial Day holiday and its meaning.  But, even if you do not specifically know someone like Pat, be very aware that you should.

Freedom really isn’t free.  It never has been.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ronald H. Roby permalink
    May 30, 2012 9:50 am

    My Pat is Donnie Roby. Last seen at Chosin Reservoir manning a machine gun, mowing down hordes of Chinese while the rest of his fellow grunts retreated. He volunteered and told his buddies to beat it! Donnie was my first cousin, the son of Zuel and May Roby. There are others to be remembered but Monday I went to Gainesville with my wife, Susan to put flags on by dad’s and my brother’s graves and flowers on mom’s. Donnie is often on my mind not just on Memorial Day. I pulled up behind a pickup some time back and saw a sticker which said “Chosin Few”. We stopped at a traffic light and I got out and told the driver about Donnie. He, Donnie, was chosen or rather chose to sacrifice himself for hid buddies. Peace, R.

    • Ron Roby permalink
      June 4, 2012 3:30 pm

      Ron. Thanks for sharing your cousin’s story. It reminds us that every family has had a war, and possibly a Pat, for all of us to remember. Dan

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