Tuesday, April 5, 2016

~ 50th Commemoration of Vietnam ~

“I went to the wilderness to confront the basic of life to be sure that when I died I would not regret living” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Even Einstein knew, at the speed of light, you could only be in one place at one time.

My bike did not break the sound barrier but it sure came close as I tried to make the opening ceremonies at Fort Irwin, some three hundred miles from my home in Three Rivers.  These were not just any military ceremonies, but the 50th Commemoration of Vietnam. 

After 300 miles, I came up short.  I missed the opening ceremonies by 30 minutes.  Last November, I attended the Veterans Day celebrations at my home town in Barstow.

That November 11th, I listened to the outstanding military speakers.  The Commander from Fort Irwin was impressive.  He ended his speech by saying, "We intend to honor and welcome home our Vietnam Veterans in March next year, so stay tuned."  At the time, I wondered just what he meant, so I made a mental note to later find out.  It had to be important.

It turns out that Fort Irwin was going all out to honor and welcome our Vietnam Veterans.   It's been 50 years since I had been to Fort Irwin while attending John F. Kennedy High School in Barstow.

As I rode onto the base, there were American Flags everywhere.  It was not hard to follow them to the heart of the celebrations.  

There were thousands of bikes all around me
There were thousands of bikes in the special designated parking so parking is easy.  There is professional photographer taking pictures, so I ask him if he could take a picture of me with my cell phone, seconds after arriving at Fort Irwin.  The wind, I felt, was still blowing in my face after 300 miles.  "I did not break the sound barrier getting here, but came close" I say as he gets takes the picture.   After he took the picture, he looked at me a bit funny. 

One can only image what the key note speaker had to say about Vietnam.  He was a photo journalist in Vietnam and the author of We Were Soldiers Once.  His name is Joe Galloway.  Perhaps, I'll see him another time.  I once saw him a video interview and he had a certain way of telling the Vietnam story that made you want to listen.

There are thousands of people here and I do get to hear a few other speakers.  They are dynamic, and their words are full of emotion.  At times, a bit hard to hear but hear I do never-the-less.  One speaker talks about the empty table at the head of the room and he describes in details why it is empty and how it represents those Vietnam soldiers who did not come back.  A real tear jerker.

I was there to support my two close high school friends who served in Vietnam and now deceased ~  *Gene Christiansen and *John Lopez.  They will never be forgotten, the Commander of Fort Irwin saw to that.

My brother Leo was also in Vietnam and he served with the 82nd Airborne but he was not able to attend.  There are other Vietnam Veterans from Barstow, like Robert Esquibel and Mike Ulibarri.  Mike and I were on the John F. Kennedy High School cross country team.  Mike was one of the best cross country runners in Southern California.

Robert Griego and Mike Ulibarri, class of 1967 ~ JFK
Just when I thought I would not see anyone I knew among the thousands of people, there was Mike Ulibarri walking towards me.  Seeing someone you have not seen in years, is special.  Mike is iconic and I see that many of the younger soldiers sense that and "thank him" for his service.  They are passing out gifts to the Vietnam Vets and I wait in line with Mike catching up on things.  

Thank you, Mike Ulibarri for your service
He did not register in advance and now must go to a second line to register.  There is a young lady with pen in hand and looks up at Mike.  "What branch of the service were you in?...What years of service?...What company?"  Then her final question, "Did you receive any citations, and if so, what were they."  All this time I'm standing next to Mike and his answers come without effort.  But his last answer surprised me.  He could have been asked "would you like sugar or cream with your coffee" and he casually said "Silver Star."  All this time, she has kept her head pointing to her note pad.  But now, she raises her her head and looks directly at Mike.  Then she pauses, and writes on her note pad next to Silver Star, the word (Valor); and I saw her underlined the word.  I never knew that about Mike.

Later I would find out that the Silver Star is the third highest military decoration awarded for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States. 

Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band
There is another reason to be here at Fort Irwin.  Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band are scheduled to perform to 2pm.  I was not going to miss this.  The young solider next to me asks, "How did you hear about this event?"  He heard my story about Veterans Day in Barstow and thanked me.  I did not have any words for him, so I shook my head.  "Why are you here I ask?"  "Gary Sinise, he rocks."

The music is very good and the crowd loves him.  "Ok, how many of you have seen Forrest Gump?" Sinise asks the crowd.  Nothing but cheers.  "Ok, how many of you have seen Forrest Gump, more than once?"  More thunderous applause.  "How about more than three time," and the crowd responds in kind.  Their music is very good but I listen closer to the words he speaks.

He is a true blue American who is here to honor and thank all the veterans, especially, as he said, the Vietnam Veterans.  He plays to the audience and they love him.  Finally, he walks into the crowd and people are taking pictures like crazy.  Mostly, selfies.

He ends his performance, by thanking the Vietnam Veterans..."...thank you, stand tall, we love you."  I was so impressed with him.  I love him as an actor, but today, I love him for being an outstanding ambassador for the Vietnam Veterans.

The Company Commander was true to his words that November 11th day at the Barstow Cemetery... "We intend to honor and welcome home our Vietnam Veterans in March next year, so stay tuned."

Camp site near Lake Isabella
Three hundred miles back, but this time, I camped near Lake Isabella Lake to shorten my trip, and over my campfire, reflect on the day.

It was perhaps my best 600 miles, such a small price in exchange for remembering and honoring my two high school friends, *Gene Christiansen and *John Lopez who both rode Yamaha 305cc's in our younger days.

We were fondly called the infamousYamaha Gang.
The Infamous Yamaha Gang 1967 ~ Robert Griego, Gene Christiansen, John Lopez

Camp site near Lake Isabella
Camp site near Lake Isabella

Mike Ulibarri on the Wall That Heals

The Wall That Heals

My brother Leo served in the 82st Airborne

A special tribute to *Gene Christensen

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