Saturday, May 29, 2010

Old Soldiers Never Die, They Just Fade Away -- A Toast to Steve Sircom

  Death plays no favorites. As our nation this Memorial Day weekend honors those who gave their lives and served their country, most of the memory will be focused on ... 

Two actors who did not serve a day in our military. Dennis Hopper and Gary Coleman.

 In life as well as in death, timing is everything. In no way do I begrudge the legacy of stardom in all its warts on the two actors.

Dennis Hopper, 74, gained fame for his directing and co-starring in the cult movie "Easy Riders" in the 1960s and made decent comebacks between intervals of tantrums, drug and alcohol abuse and five failed marriages.

 Gary Coleman, 42, never achieved acclaim after his hugely popular "Different Strokes" television series beginning in 1978 and despite earning the then-commanding $100,000 per episode, died broke.

All I'm saying is that the news of their deaths eclipses those who have fallen before them on this weekend set aside to honor our veterans.

Among our celebrities who always tend to hog the news space, I cherish the memory of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in WWII with the Medal of Honor and 32 other citations of valor. He performed in 44 films before his death in 1971.

I cherish the memory of actor James Stewart, a bomber commander, who never was chased off a set as was the case by John Wayne with a loaded gun pointing at Dennis Hopper.

I cherish the stoic George McGovern, the politician who ran for president and not once mentioned he commanded 44 bombing missions over Germany in WWII.

Somewhere in America this Memorial Day weekend, the 1,000th casualty of the Afghanistan war will be honored. 

We do not know his name nor is he the unknown soldier. In my mind he is as much a celebrity to be mourned as any.

There will be parades and memorial services honoring our veterans but the Big Daddy of them all is the 100,000 paying their respects at Arlington National Cemetery on Monday where 330,000 are buried.

Kaitlin Horst, the cemetery's spokeswoman, said, "As Americans, I think we have a sense of pride, pride in our country, pride in what we stand for and we also have a sense of pride in our military -- what our military has done over the course of our nation's history, to defend the rights and freedoms that we hold dear."

Memorial Day is best observed when one remembers the memory of one who died or served who we knew or read about. One such person is Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta.

Peralta is a Mexican immigrant who, during the battle of Falluja in Iraq, fell on a grenade that exploded killing him but saving the lives of six of his Marine buddies.

My colleague Dorian deWind has written passionately about Sgt. Peralta and the inexplicable reluctance of the Department Of Defense to award the Medal of Honor to Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers -- six so far and all posthumously.

In comparison, there were 245 Medal of Honor recipients in Vietnam and 27 for the single battle of Iwo Jima in WWII, deWind points out.

Yes, there is controversy among our dead of whom some are deemed more worthy than others. Not one ounce of heroism and bravery is lost in my mind over Sgt. Peralta despite him being awarded a Navy Cross rather than the Medal of Honor.

Unlike Dorian deWind, I do not come from a military family but honor those who did just as much.

A long distant relative, Elmer Ellsworth, has the infamous distinction of being the first Union officer killed in the Civil War. The events, as I understand them, were his Massachusetts command protecting the capitol when he saw a Confederate flag being raised on the balcony above a bar. Young Ellsworth in a burst of patriotic fervor, ran up the stairs and replaced the rebel flag with the U.S. flag. Returning down the stairwell, the bartender, a rebel sympathizer, shot and killed him.

The only other relative to serve with distinction was my cousin Herb Eggleston who flew a Mustang fighter plane shelling German targets at the end of WWII. Others that served performed their service in peace time.

My father, at age 18, nearly died in the military when he contacted Spanish influenza while stationed at a training base in New Mexico, at the end of WWI.

Joe Brown, another colleague of mine in the newspaper business, on this Saturday wrote perhaps the most touching personalized veteran's story of this Memorial Day weekend.

I’m always reminded of this when I pass the home of a local neighbor in Rockport, Maine, Steve Sircom.

Steve, who lives in a small unpretentious trailer on Union Street, was a career Marine for more than 20 years, and each day lives that service over and over by flying both the American and Marine Corps flags over his doorway. 
I met Steve about 20 years ago and, in learning that we were in Vietnam at the same time in 1966 (Steve as a Marine, me as a civilian writer) struck up a friendship. We never met each other in that war, but we shared memories of people we knew there, and events.
Each day, I watched Steve pass by my house on his regular three-mile forced march from Rockport to Camden and back again, always wearing his military fatigues and with a Pacman headset draped over his ears. I’m convinced he was probably listening to either martial music or a recording of artillery fire as he walked.
Steve will never stop remembering he was a Marine. At the start of the Gulf War, for instance, he hung a sign on his trailer offering to re-enlist and serve actively again although we all knew the government would ignore this offer from a man then in his sixties
A true loner, Steve has no living relatives except for a distant cousin somewhere in Massachusetts. Because of his odd habits he is shunned by neighbors and shown affection only by a pet dachshund who shares his modest dwelling.
In what he later described to me as a “bad moment,” Steve years ago put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Fortunately, instinct forced him to turn his head at the last moment, saving his life but blowing away much of his face.
About a week later, Steve phoned me from the hospital where he had been treated and confined in a psychiatric section, asking for a ride back to his trailer. I was aghast when I saw the mess the bullet had made to his face. The disfigurement remains to this day, since Steve had no funds for a reconstruction of the damage and, since the injury was self-inflicted and not accidental or from combat, the government would not pay for it at a Maine Veterans Administration hospital.
When plans were made for last year’s Memorial Day parade in Rockport, Steve offered to march with one of the participating groups but found no takers. He remained simply as ”that kooky ex-Marine who lives alone in a trailer,” someone to be politely ignored.
Undeterred, on that  Memorial Day Steve donned a Marine dress blue uniform he had kept for more than 40 years, complete with an array of service ribbons on its chest and, ramrod straight despite his years, marched the length of the parade route alongside one of the marching bands.
I  hope  that a uniformed Steve Sircom will march once again next Monday as Rockport honors those who have devoted a large part of their lives to serving their country. If he does, I for one will salute him as he passes by.

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