We Lost Them Later


Pictured left to right: Elmo R. Zumwalt III, James “Jim” Zumwalt and Admiral Zumwalt off the coast of Vietnam. Family photo by Jim Zumwalt.

“An Old Man’s Folly” by Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.

As part of the Veteran’s Day festivities in 1992, I was asked to lay a wreath at the recently completed U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. Included in this memorial, along with a statue of the “Lone Sailor,” are a series of bronze bas reliefs, each depicting a different era in our naval history. I laid the commemorative wreath at the foot of the bronze relief dedicated to the “Brown Water Navy,” the name given to those who served on the small boats operating in the narrow waterways of Vietnam during that conflict.

The ceremony was an emotional one for me, for two reasons. First, I had commanded for two years those sailors who had so valiantly served in the Brown Water Navy. Second, the scene depicted was of Swift Boat #3—the boat commanded by my older son, Elmo, who had served under my command at that time.

While Elmo survived the fighting in Vietnam, he failed to survive the war. Despite a courageous five-year struggle, he eventually succumbed to cancer believed to have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant used—on my direct orders—to deny the Viet Cong the concealment provided by the heavily vegetated riverbeds.

That Veteran’s Day was also the 10th anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Despite its stark simplicity, The Wall cannot help but cause the observer—whether or not he or she ever served in uniform—to be moved. Focusing on a single name there makes one ponder how and where that particular individual met death. Was it painful and protracted or mercifully swift? What were this person’s last thoughts? What personal legacy has survived?

A painting of The Wall by Lee Teter perhaps best sums up some of the common emotions evoked by viewing this awesome memorial:

The scene appears to take place on a pleasantly warm autumn day. A man wearing a three-piece suit, his sleeves rolled up, with his suit jacket draped over his briefcase on the ground next to him, stands with his left hand in his pocket, leaning with his right hand above his head against The Wall. The touch of gray in the man’s neatly trimmed beard suggests he is in his 50s. His head is bowed; his eyes are tightly shut; he is immersed in deep reflection—perhaps about a fallen comrade, brother or father.

While the observer can only guess at the reason for this man’s particular grief, the artist has left no doubt that the experience for this visitor to The Wall is a painfully emotional one.  At the point where the visitor’s right hand comes in contact with The Wall, one can see an outstretched hand—emanating from within the Memorial—pressed firmly against the grieving man’s hand, as if the two were separated only by a pane of glass. The arm leads to the ghostlike figure of a young helmeted soldier, still in battle camouflaged uniform, peering out at the bereaved visitor, who is oblivious to the soldier’s presence. The soldier, perhaps the dead friend or relative about whom the visitor is reflecting, is flanked on either side by similar apparitions in varied degrees of battlefield uniform. The apparition to the immediate left of the soldier with the outstretched arm has his right hand on that soldier’s shoulder, as if to comfort the soldier who is anguishing, in turn, over the grief exhibited by the visitor. These spirits, unable to reach out to the visitor, their voices silent forever, convey in their faces the message clearly locked in their hearts: “Do not grieve for us, dear friend, for we are finally at peace.”

The Teter print is appropriately titled, “Reflections.”

Perhaps it is just an old man’s folly, but now when I visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I pause to press my hand firmly against the black granite wall. I then envision Elmo’s hand reaching out to touch mine. And in a plea that will forever remain silent in this world, I see in his eyes the message he is trying to convey from his heart: “Do not grieve for me, Dad, for I am finally at peace.”

ADM. ELMO ZUMWALT JR. spoke at the first In Memory Day ceremony in 1999, when his son was added to the In Memory Honor Roll. Adm. Zumwalt died on Jan. 2, 2000. This essay is adapted from an article he wrote in 1993, a year after attending the 10thanniversary ceremony at The Wall and laying the wreath at the new U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., and is printed with permission from his son, James Zumwalt.  

ELMO RUSSELL ZUMWALT III died on Aug. 13, 1988, from cancer related to Agent Orange exposure. He is honored through VVMF’s In Memory program.

Vincent J kelly.JPG
We Lost Them Later

Vincent J. Kelly

“A Lifelong Dream of Flight” by Patricia Kelly

Vincent J. Kelly was born Sept. 30, 1937 in Buffalo, N.Y., to Leo and Estella (Graff) Kelly. He was the second of six children.

During his youth, his dream was to become a pilot, so his father would take him to watch planes flying in and out of the Buffalo Airport. Vince graduated from high school and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in June 1955, where he became a jet aircraft mechanic. When he was discharged in 1959, he applied for and was accepted into the cadet pilot training program at Reese Air Force Base in Texas.

Vince and I met at a wedding in Phoenix, Ariz., when one of his classmates married a friend of mine. Our courtship was long distance, as Vince was now stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, and I lived in Phoenix. We married in August 1963 during his leave between Cannon and his new assignment to the 48thTactical Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England.

At first, his principal duty was as an alert officer. But in March 1964, he was assigned to the 493rd Squadron, and oh, was he happy! He could be a fighter pilot. He reveled in this job, as it was fulfilling his lifelong dream. He just wanted to fly, fly, fly! He was always happy when the squadron went to Wheelus (Libya), Aviano (Italy), Madrid (Spain) or anywhere that the good weather meant more flying.

I think his one unhappiness was that he didn’t own a sports car anymore. He had sold his beloved 1963 Corvette Stingray before leaving the United States. Maybe that was a good thing, because he’d probably drive it like he flew his F-100. As it was, he drove our little Volkswagen Bug almost like a sports car.

Our life in England was good. We met many wonderful English people and took occasional trips to London and a tour to Ireland.  In June 1966, when Vince had a temporary assignment as a forward air controller for the Army, we drove through Belgium and around Germany. Our daughters were born during that time, too, in 1964 and 1966.

The Vietnam conflict was heating up, and in March 1967, Vince was assigned as a fighter pilot to Phan Rang Air Force Base and to the 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron, “B” Flight.  I think Vince’s tour in Vietnam, which lasted from March 1967 to March 1968, must have been exhilarating for him. He earned the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with oak leaf clusters. He flew an F-100 Super Sabre jet in 340 combat missions, totaling 526 combat hours. All of this flying couldn’t help but fulfill his boyhood dream.

Stateside, Vince was an instructor pilot at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. As he was adjusting to this new job, he started feeling ill and was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer originating in the white blood cells that spreads through the lymph nodes. His condition was treated with chemotherapy, but as it progressed, he needed continuous chemotherapy and close medical follow-up. He retired in March 1969 because of what was considered a service-connected disability. After being in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years and flying over 2,000 hours, he was now given a new military classification: 4-F. He was crushed.

Vince fought the cancer valiantly, but on March 12, 1970, the Hodgkin’s disease won. Capt. Vincent Kelly passed away while in the Veterans Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz. He left behind his wife and two daughters, loving parents, siblings and many close relatives and friends.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I heard about Agent Orange and the health ramifications it had for Vietnam veterans. After submitting his medical records in 1994, I received notification that his Hodgkin’s disease and subsequent death were attributed to Agent Orange exposure.

VINCENT J. KELLY died as a result of his service in Vietnam in 1970 and was honored through VVMF’s In Memory Program in 2006. He is remembered through the In Memory Honor Roll, which pays tribute to those who died as a result of the Vietnam War, but who do not meet Department of Defense criteria to have their names added to The Wall.

We Lost Them Later

Chris Benedict

“Eulogy for Chris Benedict” by Ed Chavez

Years ago, Chris Benedict came into the Social Security office where I work and asked to see me. He looked very dashing in his suede jacket, cowboy hat and boots. At the time, I knew he had served in Vietnam and had service-connected injuries, but not until this interview did I realize the extent of his disabilities.

One of the items he needed to file a claim was a DD-214, to establish his record of active-duty service. Check. He was a Marine. “You went to Vietnam twice?” I asked.

He nodded. “I volunteered.”

There was much more to Chris than he let on. He briefly described the loss of sight in his left eye, his reconstructive surgeries and his exposure to Agent Orange. More operations and tests were needed. Since we were related by marriage, I told him I had to disqualify myself, but we arranged for another representative to process his claim.

When he left the building with that confident stride of his, two young ladies working in the office came up and asked me about him: “So, who is the Sundance Kid?”

“That’s my cousin’s husband,” I told them.

“He’s married?” Their hopes were dashed.

Chris had many blessings. He had a magnetic, physical presence. He had immense personal charm. He was the kind of person who is genuinely interested in others. His courage was heroic—not only in combat, which earned him two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star—but in the courage he showed us in his day-to-day living with pain and with the knowledge that his athletic prowess was limited by his injuries. By degrees and through the years, we witnessed how he had to stop hiking, fishing and golfing.

He taught his wife to fish and Lynda gamely kept right on, even after he could no longer wade the streams with her or cast a rod. Instead, he’d watch her at the riverside and then clean whatever she brought on her string. “She’s the catcher and I’m the cleaner,” is how he described it.

Of his many blessings, Lynda quite possibly was his greatest gift. Chris and Lynda took their wedding vows seriously: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer.” Along with her personal beauty, Chris saw in Lynda a history of stability, a family that interacts with warmth and concern, an extended family that included parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews. Chris saw that human happiness does not happen. Rather, happiness is the result of daily effort.

The Bible teaches us that when we endure suffering, we should not put on a long face. Chris knew there was no merit in trying to elicit pity or praise. He did what he was supposed to do. He persevered. Chris was not a quitter. No one ever heard him complain or whine, “Why me?”

Chris was optimistic. The pessimist would say Chris had little reason to live. But Chris, the incurable optimist, saw only what there was to live for. His sweet tooth was enough! He was famous with his nieces and nephews who knew he was an easy touch for that pocketful of Smarties he always carried with him. And when you were in his kitchen, he pressed you to join him for a Haagen Dazs. More than that, he was loyal to his friends, he was eager to make new ones and he had only pleasant things to say about people and to people.

Chris was a strong and cheerful person who bore his burdens with optimism and patience. But how much blood does a soldier have to spill to be awarded the Purple Heart three times? His suffering did not end in Vietnam, either. To be afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder, as he was when he returned home, one is doomed to relive the horror again and again at unexpected moments.

We don’t have Chris to worry about anymore; there is no more pain for him. We should thank him for the priceless gifts he gave us: for his example of perseverance and courage; for his optimism that shouted, “Life, indeed, is worth living!” and for spending his life for us.

ED CHAVEZ lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This story is adapted from the eulogy he gave at Chris Benedict’s funeral in September 1997 and is printed with permission from Chris’s wife Lynda Benedict, who travels to Washington, D.C. every year to participate in the In Memory program and who traveled to Vietnam with VVMF in 2010.

CHRIS BENEDICT died as a result of his service in Vietnam in 1997 and was among those honored in VVMF’s first In Memory Ceremony on Memorial Day 1998.  More than 2,800 men and women are honored through the In Memory program.