My thoughts are turned this Memorial Day weekend to my first cousin, Jimmy Reed. He is one of 3 children born to my aunt Delores and Uncle Clay who lived in Los Angeles, California, light years from where I lived in West Virginia and later Montgomery, Alabama. We shared some happy childhood experiences. We did not see each other often but when we went to visit them or vice versa it was for extended periods of time. I remember him as being funny and entertaining. He was my younger brother's age almost exactly. They could always make me laugh.
Well here I am turning 65 in two days. I had a thirty year career with DuPont and got to travel a lot. I was able to carry some important assignments for DuPont and achieved some degree of recognition. I met a wonderful girl and we fell in love and raised 3 children. We have 7 grand children. I used to coach softball and baseball, volunteer in scouting, work in PTA, go on family vacations and just generally have had a great life.
Jimmy died just west of Khe Sanh during operation Purple Martin March 20,1969. That was just a little more than 30 days before his 19th birthday. He was a member of the D Company, First Battallion, Third MarDiv, USMC. He died that day along with 2nd Lt. Mike McCormick of Wellston, Ohio; LCpl Max Baer of Goshen, Ind; LCpl Steve Byars, Lakeland, Florida; LCpl Ernest Elders of Shelby, NC; PFC Norman Beck of Rockford, Il.; PFC Jeffrey Forry, Marion, OH and PFC Larry Knox of Harrisonville, MO.
I graduated from college in 1969 and rode a student deferrment to avoid military service. I also pulled a 344 as my draft lottery number. Were it not for those two happenstances I well could have had my name engraved onto that war memorial wall in Washington, DC. I have been there and was able to find Jimmy's name on that wall. It is a somber and eloquent memorial fitting as a requiem for those who gave their lives on various battlefields of the Vietnam war. For whatever purpose that war served I honor his memory this Memorial Day. I wish I could pick up the phone and call him and tell him a joke or two but that opportunity was nullified by the winds of war. His Mother, my aunt Delores, has grieved every day for her fallen son for 42 years now.
It is pure irony how some of us end up pursuing the military option. Today we have a totally volunteer military. You press the statistics on the makeup of our armed forces and you will see a lot of people who just seemed to have no other option than to join the military. The impetus is largely economic with job prospects being what they are. In mine and Jimmy's youth the draft was rampant. The selective service boards were steaming at full speed. In my case, had I not been a student it was a certainty that I would have been drafted into the miltary.
I recall that in those days you would report for a college class and two or three of the people that had been in the class the day before would be gone. You had to maintain a class standing to keep your draft exemption of 2-S. In order to do that you had to be in the upper 1/4th of your freshman class in academic performance. Fail to do that and you were draft fodder. Sophomores had to be in the upper 1/2 and Juniors in the upper 3/4. If you made it to be a senior then they left you alone. Along about my freshman year they administered the selective service standardized test. The guys at Harvard made the claim that the students in the bottom 3/4 of their freshman classes were superior to the upper 1/4 of the freshman class at State College X. So the selective service came up with the standardized test and administered it to us all in the second semester of my 1st year. You either had to maintain your academic standing or have scored 75% or better on the test. I remember scoring a 78 and my worries were ended.
There was also a point at which I was thinking I needed to drop out of college. I checked with the draft board and I was told the day after I did I would be reclassified 1-A and almost certainly drafted into the military. I do not know of Jimmy's circumstances but while I was studying Mark Twain in English 301 he was most likely doing basic training at Paris Island. Talk about worlds apart.
When I ponder the freedoms under which I live and also ponder the 58,220 war dead from the Vietnam war, the 405,399 from WW2 and the 116,516 from WW1 I feel guilty and appreciative at the same time. I do believe that those fallen willingly sacrificed their lives so that we could continue to breathe the free and unfettered air of liberty. I have to ask myself what sort of life have I led to justify the single death of my cousin Jimmy, not to mention the 100's of thousands of war dead who made similar sacrifices.
I suppose I have made small sacrifices but the bumper sticker I read once that said "All gave some but some gave all" makes me realize what an investment we all have in our freedom. Just about every American can tell a similar story as mine about my cousin, Jimmy. I contemplate why he had to lay down and die that day in Vietnam. It was because he felt the call to duty and like others of his family before him felt the obligation to serve. Pure and simple.
May we take a little time to really remember those who sacrificed their lives and well being to keep us safe and free this Memorial Day weekend. God bless you Jimmy. You were way too young to die. I hope to see you again someday, if I am worthy, and shake your hand and say thank you in person. I hope that you will see someone standing in front of you who you can feel justified your sacrifice. I need to work to become such.