I know that a lot of folks use Memorial Day as a day to honor all service members, but that’s not really what it is. It was started as a day to honor the dead; those who gave their all for this great republic. I’ve often spent this day as a living symbol of those who have gone before me. Parades, memorials, ceremonies; I’ve accepted the thanks of grateful people… but it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t my day.
I’ve gazed upon the graves of soldiers lost in the Civil War and wondered about them. I’ve seen the photos from the Civil War, WW-I, WW-II, Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq; photos of the anonymous dead who symbolize all of the dead of each of those conflicts. So hard to personalize beyond the abstract… they were, “the other guy.” They weren’t like me. I was the survivor, the one it wouldn’t happen to. Memorial Day was their day.
I have two brothers who are significantly older than myself. One, since passed, spent a career in the Army and a tour in Vietnam that forever changed him and may have ultimately led to his loss at a young age. My other brother was in ROTC for a spell in college. He eventually went on to a doctorate, but one of his closest friends was also in ROTC, accepting his commission when I was fairly young; perhaps seven or so. His name was Bob Rice.
Before he went to Vietnam, we went to what was, at the time, Cincinnati’s amusement park, Coney Island. Since replaced by Kings Island, I remember it to be pretty cool. I thought Bob and my brother were the coolest things going. I was in awe of Bob, the strong young man who carried me around on his shoulders that day and accompanied me on the roller coasters I was tall enough to ride.
I never saw him again after that day. 1LT Robert Thomas Rice, Jr., 23, of Springfield, Ohio, was killed near Pleiku, RVN, on August 8, 1970. He was in B Co, 2nd Bn, 8th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division. He was awarded a Silver Star. For me, he and my brother were the face of the Vietnam War.
Memorial Day is his day.
Many years later, I met a man who seemed to be liked by all who met him. He was fairly soft-spoken and calm. He carried an air of self assurance and common sense, and, like me, he loved to play golf and was just as much an amateur. We became fast friends. He was prior service Marine Corps and Army, and pined for an opportunity to do his part in this war. He had been turned away by recruiters who didn’t want to make the effort to go through the medical review process his back injury would have required. They preferred the low-hanging fruit. Jon Stiles would not be deterred.
He fought his way through bureaucracies across state lines, and eventually got back in, joining the Colorado Army National Guard. When their scheduled deployment was delayed, he found an open position with a unit from Louisiana and actually transferred across state lines to make sure that he wasn’t left behind.
Last November, Jon saw a suspicious vehicle approaching his Route Clearing Team of Engineers in Jalalabad. Sensing danger to his team, Jon went through his escalation of force measures and wound up engaging the vehicle with his M-240B machine gun. The vehicle-borne explosive device detonated and Jon caught a facefull of the blast and fragmentation. He was knocked unconscious immediately, and SGT Jon Stiles, 38, of Highlands Ranch, Colorado, died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital of head and neck wounds. Numerous Afghan civilians were killed, but Jon was the only American casualty. He couldn’t prevent the civilian carnage, but he forced the bomber to detonate prematurely, saving his buddies from the blast. He was awarded a Bronze Star for valor for an action the previous month in which he pulled soldiers from a burning vehicle after a similar attack. He had declined medical leave for his wounds from that day which would have had him at home on the day he met his fate.
Jon joins the ranks of such men as Bob Rice in the ranks of our hallowed dead. This is his first Memorial Day, a day that he earned with his sacrifice on that dusty road in Afghanistan. I can barely remember Bob Rice’s face these many years later, but I can still see Jon’s, and I can still hear his voice and his laughter.
I will spend part of this Memorial Day in uniform, standing in for Bob and Jon at a ceremony at a school, symbolizing those who are the very fabric of the red stripes in the flag. It’s not my day, though. It belongs to so many men just like Bob Rice.
And now, Jon, this day is yours.
CJ put up this post, a tribute to 1LT Schulte, killed recently in Afghanistan.