Remembering Max

Remembering Max

by Justin “Jerry” Martin

MURIEL STANLEY GROOMES is honored on Panel 39W, Row 8 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Over the last 42 years, I have been asked many times, “How can you be so close to guys you served with for only a year of your life?” For all combat veterans, I imagine the response is similar: “Unless you were there, you wouldn’t understand.”

For United States Marines, the term “brotherhood” means more than just the men you served with—it has a meaning that is defined by a legacy of over 230 years of service to our nation. “Brotherhood” evolved into a code of conduct and commitment to each other, mostly unwritten and unspoken, but ingrained in every recruit and officer candidate from their first day of training. It is sealed in the hardships endured by every generation of Marines that has come before and is expected of every generation that comes after. It is the basis for the silent bond that exists between all Marines.

I was inducted into that Brotherhood in the fall of 1967 and would meet the “brothers” with whom I would share the most memorable year of my life in May 1968. I was introduced as the new lieutenant and second platoon commander, and this was sufficient for acceptance into my new family. Two of us were joining the platoon as replacements that day: me and Pfc. Muriel Stanley Groomes—“Max,” as he preferred to be called.

Our platoon and their rifle company had only days before been battered by a numerically superior North Vietnamese infantry regiment for 48 hours of vicious assaults reminiscent of World War II and Korean War battles. A total of 57 Marines were killed or wounded in what became known as the battle for Foxtrot Ridge in the Khe Sanh area of I Corps Republic of Vietnam. It was into this Brotherhood of survivors that Max Groomes and I were thrust for our tour in-country.

Besides being new guys in the platoon, Max and I both came from the same area of the country: Max from Hampstead, Md., and me from Manassas, Va. There was only three years difference in our ages—he was 19 and I was 22—yet he referred to me respectfully as “Lieutenant” or “The Old Man” (with a smile) when I later became the company commander. I referred to him as “Little Brother” because our interpreter had told me that the Vietnamese word for an enlisted man was “anh em,” which means “little brother.”  It was appropriate; I was the big brother responsible for taking care of and watching out for him and my other men. 

However, Max was not the typical Marine.  He was small in frame and, others later said, too kind and gentle in nature to be in combat. My recollections of Max are of a Marine who was always willing to do more than what was expected of him. On patrol, even when suffering from both malaria and active dysentery, he willingly shouldered another Marine’s heavy machine gun when that  Marine complained of not being able to make it. Max willingly shared the contents of his packages from home and gave away his rations of beer and cigarettes. He often volunteered to carry the platoon radio when others balked at the task, even though he realized this made him more of an enemy target than his job as a rifleman did.  He was selfless in nature, always willing to do his job without complaint and usually with a shy smile. Seldom did he speak of home except an occasional mention of older brothers, a fondness for Maryland seafood and a desire to get back to “the world,” our slang term for the United States. He was the quietest member of our small portion of the Brotherhood. There was no pretense or false bravado about him. Max listened more than he talked. His actions were more memorable than his conversations. He was just a damn good Marine.

As a combat leader, I learned to steel my emotions to the news of casualties in our unit.  However, shortly after I left the rifle company and was awaiting reassignment, I was notified that one of my men had been killed in action.  I ran to the landing zone to check on the casualties evacuated to the battalion aid station, and there was Max, his shattered remains wrapped in a poncho and guarded by the sergeant who had been wounded with him. Both men had absorbed the blast of a command-detonated claymore mine. One Marine had lived; the other had died.  Max had volunteered to carry the radio that day. Typical of Max, he had helped someone else and then made the ultimate sacrifice.

Muriel Stanley Groomes is an unsung American patriot. His name is but one of the many listed on what Vietnam veterans call our “hallowed ground”—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His service and sacrifice are anonymous, except for the posthumous Purple Heart awarded in his memory to his next of kin. His courage and life are remembered only by those who knew him.  His death was not heroic, but was selfless, like Max himself.

Max Groomes represents just one of the thousands who stand in silent witness to the devotion to duty displayed by a generation of Americans. When those who knew him are gone, who will speak for him?  I hope that, in my lifetime, a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Education Center will be built to honor those like Lance Cpl. Muriel Stanley Groomes.  Semper Fidelis, Max.