Let's honor those who died for freedom

Politics has been a turbulent player in our recent wars, but as Memorial Day arrives I am reminded that American men and women in uniform do not act on their politics. They go to war when we send them, and we owe a special duty to remember the ones who died in our service.

The icon of remembrance for my war is the Vietnam Memorial, where the names of American men and women who paid the ultimate price are carved in the black granite wall. When I visited the wall in 1992, I discovered its simple genius.

To find a name I had to look it up alphabetically to get the wall panel number, then walk the long wall searching for the panel, then search on the panel among hundreds of names because they are listed in what seems random fashion; just the names are on the wall and they are in date of death order. The search becomes overwhelming as you realize emotionally what you already knew intellectually, that there are so many names. Then when you find the name and remember how he died, it's a different kind of overwhelming.

Something special happens at the wall every day; people leave mementos there, notes, photos, letters, flowers, boots, flags, medals and a thousand other things, all gathered up daily by the National Park Service. Songwriter Jamie O'Hara captured it beautifully in his song 50,000 Names, made famous by country singer George Jones.

There are actually 58,260 names on the wall, but the real story gets lost in numbers. Let me tell you about just one name.

The year was 1969. At the 334th Attack Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam, I had a roommate named Pete Parnell from Lee's Summit, Mo. We were Cobra helicopter gunship pilots. Gunslingers, we thought of ourselves.

Pete drove us all nuts talking about his wife and the first baby they were expecting. We all talked sometimes about our girlfriends or families back home but Pete never shut up.

I was shot down on Dec. 17, 1969, and was in the 24th Evac hospital in Long Binh starting my recovery from surgery to piece together a broken back, so I didn't know until later that Pete received a telegram the very next day, Dec. 18, informing him he had a son named Thad. Knowing Pete, he must have been frantic to hold his newborn son.

Four days after the telegram, on Dec. 22, 1969, the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Mobile Strike Force (Special Forces, Green Berets), were making a sweep for enemy infiltrators near the small village named Bu Dop, west of the Song Be river, about 120 miles northwest of the capital city of Saigon and just a few miles from the Cambodian border. As they swept the area to flush out the concealed enemy, aircraft supporting them were fired on by an enemy .51-caliber anti-aircraft gun very near the border. Pete's Raider platoon fire team of two Cobras was scrambled to take out the enemy gun.

We never learned the details of the shoot-down when the Cobras arrived on the scene and engaged the enemy, but Pete was in the front seat and Harry Zalesny from Plymouth, Mich., was in the back seat when their Cobra crashed at high speed into thick jungle trees about 200 feet high, where the aircraft stuck and burned. It was not unusual for the enemy to form a helicopter trap with three anti-aircraft guns in a triangle, so when we attacked one position the other two would have an easy broadside shot. But we don't know if that happened.

Ordinarily, as the Special Forces team made their way carefully and quietly through the thick jungle they could cover about 50 meters an hour in that area, but they forced their way through 2,000 meters in 25 minutes as they desperately tried to get to our men after hearing the crash. The 3rd Mobile Strike Force command post was monitoring radios when it happened. Four sergeants jumped on a helicopter and took off for the scene to rappel down on ropes to recover the pilots' bodies.

With the aircraft on fire, the Special Forces volunteers rappelled down and suffered burns as they recovered Pete's body. But they could not recover Harry's body since the rockets, grenades and 7.62 mm ammo began to cook off, then the aircraft exploded.

That's how it was in Vietnam. Some were as young as 18 and no matter what role we played, our first priority was bringing each other home alive. Sometimes we took enormous risks trying to do so, like the two guys who risked their neck to rescue me when I was shot down. They were the finest of America's youth, just like in WW II, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Pete had been in Vietnam just two months when he died. At a time when protesters gathered at California airports every day to yell obscenities and throw unmentionables at our troops coming home from serving in Vietnam, Pete's family was informed of his death on Christmas Eve.

Pete is just one of the names on the wall. Every name has a story.

On Memorial Day I know there will be countless grills lit and pools opened. I hope there are still parents out there who know how important it is to do something more with their kids on that day, to teach them there are always American men and women doing our nation's dangerous work to keep them safe and free.

My friend Skip Davis, who lives in Woodstock, flew helicopters in many combat missions in Vietnam. Skip sees his own reminder every time he opens his wallet:

Dear Lord, lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember somewhere out there a person died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer, "Am I worth dying for?"

We all need reminders. It's OK to BBQ and swim on Memorial Day. But remembering should come first.

Terry Garlock lives in Peachtree City.