In Siloam Springs there's a small, neglected marker by a large old tree that few see and fewer pay attention to. I myself walked by dozens of times before noticing it, let alone stopping to read it or think about its context. It says:
This tree planted
in memory of those
who died for our country
Nov. 11, 1969
The marker doesn't refer to Vietnam, but that is the context. And to the extent, that very few pay the marker any attention, it shares something with many Vietnam veterans. As painful as the experience of war was, coming home to what felt like an indifferent or hostile nation was, for some, even worse.
The Vietnam War crept up on Siloam Springs the way it did the rest of the country. The first notice I saw in the town's Herald and Democrat newspaper appeared in 1962. It was an appeal to give to charity organizations taking care of South Vietnamese orphans. Come 1964, a couple brief articles appeared about military men with ties to Siloam Springs going to Vietnam as advisors. Beginning in 1965, the volume increases. With few exceptions, the notices are brief. Anyone scanning the paper might not notice that a war was on. Many veterans say that when they came home, no one seemed interested in hearing about it.
The veterans have names.
Gene Cabe of Westville, Okla., was an Army truck driver based at Long Binh. Richard Anderson of Watts, Okla., served in the Chu Lai area. Clifford Cox of Colcord, Okla., was assigned to Army supply. Robert Holzkamper of Gentry worked communications. Jack Abernathy, also of Gentry, was a jet fighter mechanic based at Bien Hoa. DeWitt Teehee of Maysville was with Army artillery at Phu Bai. Jackie Robertson, also of Maysville, operated with Army infantry around Dau Tieng. Arthur Benning of Decatur engaged Vietcong enemy who operated in a "vast network of tunnels and bunkers."
James Knox, whose wife lived in Siloam Springs, advised South Vietnamese forces on tactical operations. Siloam Springs resident James Hill was a Marine and operated around Chu Lai. George Mackey was an aircraft maintenance officer. William Stanley was assigned to the 39th Engineer Battalion. Ronald Dale was a Marine machine gun squad gunner. James Daugherty worked aboard the USS Intrepid as a radioman. Larry Price contributed to civic action projects, helping South Vietnamese build wells, bridges and schools. Ken Leach served in the Con Thien and Quang Tri areas. Susan Maus went to Vietnam as a nurse.
Siloam Springs resident Roy Maxwell forwarded to the newspaper a letter from his son, Allen, who wrote about a fellow soldier who saved him in battle. "A Viet Cong was going to throw a hand grenade where I was standing. He shot him before he could throw it."
William Fortenberry, of Siloam Springs, served with the Army. A long letter of his published in the Herald and Democrat mentions Phu Cuong, Ben Cat, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh and other places. He wrote about "heavy military activities in the area south of the Saigon River. Dozens of villages in the Boi Loi and Hobo areas are destroyed."
John Brown University graduate Sam Miess served with the Navy in the Mekong Delta. The South Vietnamese government awarded him a medal of honor. JBU graduates Doug Chamberlain and Ron Maines went to Vietnam as Marine officers, the former with infantry, the latter as a helicopter pilot. Mike Bryant, also a Marine, left JBU to fly helicopters in Vietnam, returning afterwards to complete his degree.
There are other names: Ronald Coleman, Jerry Williamson, Ronald Dennis, Billy Nelson, Don Hudson, Richard Henson, Robert Dickey, Benjamin Barbee, Orval Gibbs, Tom Walburn, Richard Hodges, and many others.
And, of course, there are the ones who did not make it home. Hugh Harrington of Colcord was killed in action. Eugene Riley's home of record was Tontitown, but his parents lived in Siloam Springs. At the National Guard building in town, his family was given his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Rex Blisard graduated from Siloam Springs High School in 1967 and died in Vietnam in 1969. Jerry Lanier and Archie Whaler of Siloam Springs were also lost in the war.
The point of reflections like this isn't to glorify war. War is utter madness.
But it is also a laboratory for virtues that are increasingly hard to find, like perseverance, courage, toughness, commitment, devotion to something more important than the self. A "local boy" in Vietnam sent a reflection to the Herald and Democrat. War "teaches you to experience fear but not let it conquer you," he wrote. "You run, though tired. You search, hide, shout and crawl. You feel it in the dirt clinging to your body, the aching of your muscles after a long period of tension. You see it in the hands of a veteran, a man you thought could not be shaken."
The little memorial marker by the tree deserves better than it gets. And the combat vets among us deserve more than a casual "Thank you for your service." They need to know that we're glad to have them home and that we remember and honor those who did not survive.
Preston Jones lives in Siloam Springs and works on numerous educational projects, including "War and Life: Discussions with Veterans," which can be found at https://warandlifediscussions.weebly.com/. The opinions expressed are those of the author.