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My older brother Mike was 19 when he was killed in Vietnam on Nov. 20, 1968. He died while charging machine gun bunkers during a battle on a mountain called Nui Chom. He sacrificed himself to save the lives of his fellow soldiers and, as a result, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
When Mike was laid to rest in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery near our family’s home in Philadelphia, I thought that was the end of his story. It wasn’t.
Almost 40 years later, when I decided to see about transferring his remains to Arlington National Cemetery, most of the local veteran community did not know about Mike at all, or very little. As I went through the processes necessary to get him moved, the word started to get around.
When the day came for Mike’s disinterment ceremony – May 2, 2008 – we went to Holy Sepulchre thinking that only family members and a few friends from the old neighborhood would be there. But we found a large contingent of veterans waiting to pay their respects to Mike’s memory.
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Near the gravesite the veterans had placed a soldier’s cross – an M16 thrust into the ground bayonet first, Army boots lined up at the base, a helmet sitting atop, and dog tags dangling from the weapon. They’d also established a flag line all along the road into the cemetery and forming a perimeter around the grave. There was even an Air Force honor guard from the nearby Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove standing at attention. Some of the veterans rode in on motorcycles, and they, along with a Philadelphia Police Department motorcycle unit, escorted Mike’s body to the James J. Terry Funeral Home in Downingtown, where he would await the final transfer to Arlington.
Throughout the day, you could see how much it meant to these veterans to do all this for one of their own.
The veteran community came out in even bigger numbers when Mike’s body was taken to Arlington 10 days later. A large contingent joined us in Downingtown to make the trip south, and in Maryland another group joined the convoy. There were dozens of cars and trucks and motorcycles that made the journey in the pouring rain. Along the way, each time we crossed a state border, we were escorted by a different set of State Police troopers.
When we arrived at Arlington, after checking in at the office, we went to the gravesite and were astounded to see hundreds more people waiting for us, including two Medal of Honor recipients of the Vietnam War.
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We did not know most of these people, but began to understand that this was not just a funeral for a stranger, but rather an honor bestowed on a “brother in arms.” It was the funeral they couldn’t attend when they were overseas. It was the honor and recognition that they did not receive when they returned home.
As I started to get to know many of these veterans in the weeks and months after Mike’s reburial, they started to come to me with other ideas about honoring him. My parents never made a big deal about what Mike did because other families – in our neighborhood and throughout the city – had losses too, some without recognition of any kind. The veterans, however, thought Philadelphians needed to know more about Mike, his service and sacrifice, and the act of valor that would make him the city’s only Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War.
Among the ideas proposed were renaming the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post in the Lawncrest section of Philly for Mike. An American Legion Post in Toms River, New Jersey, wanted to partner with local high school art students to create a mural honoring him. In Sea Isle City, New Jersey, another veteran thought a street should be named for Mike near where the family’s Shore house was. The Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Society in the Bridesburg section of the city had plans to install a bronze plaque dedicated to him.
There were two projects even more ambitious. One was a larger-than-life statue of Mike to be installed at the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And one Vietnam vet made it his mission – a five-year mission, as it turned out – to have the Philadelphia VA Medical Center named for my brother.
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All of these projects have been completed, thanks to the hard work and determination of the veteran community. Our family couldn’t be more grateful for all their efforts.
Mike did not live long enough to become a veteran, but he would be as proud of them as they are of him.
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