Memorial Day -- Our most sacred holiday

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark Batcho
  • 71st Medical Support Squadron commander

Oliver Wendell Holmes called Memorial Day "our most sacred holiday" and urged that "we not ponder with sad thoughts the passing of our heroes, but rather ponder their legacy - the life they made possible for us by their commitment and pain." 

Words are so inadequate when trying to convey the meaning of this day. Abraham Lincoln, in his memorable dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863, said, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here." 

During my career, I have often visited our children's schools and classrooms to discuss the meaning of Memorial Day. Here is a story that has been a favorite over the years, a story about just one of the countless unsung heroes that came before us. 

The story is called "The Courage of Sam Bird" and was written by a fellow Army soldier named B.T. Collins. 

* * * * * 
I met Capt. Samuel R. Bird on a dusty road near An Khe, South Vietnam, on a hot July day in 1966. I was filthy, sweaty, and jaded by war, and I thought "Oh, brother, get a load of this." Dressed in crisply starched fatigues, Captain Bird was what we called "squared away" - ramrod straight, eyes on the horizon; you could still see the shine on his boot tips beneath the road dust. 

Captain Bird was my fourth company commander, and my expectations were somewhat cynical when he called all his officers and sergeants together. 

"I understand this company has been in Vietnam almost a year and has never had a party," he said. "The men are going to have a party," he announced, "and they're not going to pay for it." 

A party for the "grunts" was the first order of business. We all chipped in to get food and beer for about 160 men. The troops were surprised almost to the point of suspicion. Who, after all, had ever done anything for them? 

If ever a man looked like a leader, it was Sam Bird. He was tall and lean, with penetrating blue eyes. But the tedium and terror of a combat zone take far sterner qualities than mere appearance.

Our outfit was helicoptered to a mountain outpost one day for the thankless task of preparing a position for others to occupy. We dug trenches, filled sandbags, strung wire under a blistering sun. It was hard work, and Sam was everywhere, pitching in with the men. 

A colonel who was supposed to oversee the operation remained at a shelter, doing paper work. Sam looked at what his troops had accomplished, then, red-faced, strode over to the colonel's sanctuary. We couldn't hear what he was saying to his superior, but we had the unmistakable sense that Sam was uncoiling a bit. The colonel suddenly found time to inspect the fortifications and thank the men for a job well done. 

Another day, after weeks of awful chow, we were given something called "coffee cake" that had the look and texture of asphalt paving. Furious, Sam got on the radio phone to headquarters. He reached the colonel and said, "Sir, you and the supply officer need to come out here and taste the food, because this rifle company is not taking one step further." 

The colonel came out, and the food improved from that moment. Such incidents were not lost on the men of Bravo Company. 

One sultry and miserable day on a dirt road at the base camp, Sam gathered the men together and began talking about how tough the infantryman's job is, how proud he was of them, how they should always look out for each other. He took out a bunch of Combat Infantryman's Badges, signifying that a soldier has paid his dues under fire, and he presented one to each of the men. There wasn't a soldier there who would have traded that moment on the road for some parade-ground ceremony. 

I left Bravo Company in December 1966 to return to the states for a month before joining a Special Forces unit. 

Two months later, in a thatched hut in the Mekong Delta, I got a letter from Sam's sister. Sam's helicopter had been ripped by enemy fire. Slugs shattered his left ankle and right leg. Another struck the left side of his head, carrying off almost a quarter of his skull. His executive officer scooped Sam's brains back into the gaping wound. 

Nearly a year later, in March 1968, I finally caught up with Sam at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Memphis, Tenn. Seeing him, I had to fight back the tears. The wiry, smiling soldier's soldier was blind in the left eye and partially so in the right. The circles under his eyes told of sleepless hours and great pain. 

He had the support of a wonderful family, and once he was home in Wichita, Kan., his sister brought his old school sweetheart, Annette Blazier, to see him. A courtship began, and in 1972 they were married. 

In 1976, Sam and Annette traveled to The Citadel for his 15th class reunion. World War II hero Gen. Mark Clark, the school's president emeritus, asked about his wounds and said, "On behalf of your country, I want to thank you for all you did." 

With pride, Sam answered "Sir, it was the least I could do. I had friends who didn't come back," he said. "I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for." 

On Oct. 18, 1984, after 17 years, Sam's body couldn't take any more. When we received the news of his death, a number of us from Bravo Company flew to Wichita, where Sam was to be buried with honors. As I walked from that grave, I knew I was the honored one, for having known him. 

(For a complete version of this story, do an Internet search for "The Courage of Sam Bird.")