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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Memorial Day Tribute to a Fallen Warrior

Tribute to a Fallen Warrior: Honoring Captain James Eddie Reed
Company A, 3/39th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division

By: Brenda Helen Reed

On February 1, 1968, the life of Captain James Eddie Reed prematurely ended in an instant of violence during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War. He was twenty-five years old. He had not yet begun to fulfill his dreams. I was blessed to have been his wife for far to short a time, and I continue to be blessed as the mother of his two children and grandmother to three beautiful grandchildren. This is my Memorial Day remembrance of my beloved Eddie.

Eddie, when you left for Vietnam in July 1967 at the age of twenty-four, your heart was filled with love and your eyes with laughter. You looked forward to the challenges that lay ahead, but even before you left you were already missing us. By November the light had gone from your twinkling blue eyes and a look of sadness shrouded your angular face. Your once proud shoulders were stooped from the burdens of the combat zone. The change was profound and disturbing.

You went to Vietnam determined to keep the men under your command safe and alive. That dream, too, was dashed when the young soldiers in your infantry company were killed and maimed in ambushes as they marched through the black muck of the open rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. The responsibilities of leadership weighed heavily upon you. Your superiors asked the impossible of you and your men, mostly mere boys away from their homes in small towns across America for the first time. At home there was little support for the war.

You worried about your men’s fungus covered feet and whether or not they received mail from home or had good food to eat. You dragged them for the dingy whorehouses where they went to escape their pain. When they fell in battle, you despairingly wrote letters to the families they left behind. A piece of you went to the grave with each of those young soldiers. Your men dubbed you “the best company commander in Vietnam.”

I met you when you were only nineteen – a handsome track star, a ROTC cadet, a farm boy. I pulled you from the swimming pool the last day of summer in 1962 when you belly flopped from the diving board at the hometown swimming pool in east Tennessee – just to get my attention. I still remember the mischievous way you laughed when you wrenched from my grasp at the side of the pool. That hot afternoon you won my heart forever. We eloped eighteen months later.

In August 1964 at East Tennessee State University you were commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the U. S. Army. I proudly pinned your gold bars on the collar of your khaki uniform. You gave me a prize winning smile and laughed, “It’s a lifetime commitment, honey.”

When your son, James, was born two months later, you changed his diapers and gladly gave him his bottle in the middle of the night. You adored your boy and he you. You held my hand when he was sick and assured me that everything would be okay.

A few months later we settled into life at Fort Benning. You breezed through IOBC, Ranger and Airborne schools while at age eighteen I struggled to be the perfect “Army Officer’s Wife” just as Nancy Shea had described in her book, The Army Wife.

Every day that we were together you made me laugh. You gave your all to our family. We struggled on your second lieutenant’s salary but always managed to have fun. I can still hear you drawling out “Your Cheatin’ Heart” as you showered in the morning. Oh, how you loved me and I loved you!

You watched as the young men in your company, D – 1 – 2, at Fort Ord were sent off to Vietnam immediately after finishing their advanced infantry training. They were green and you feared for their lives. Your commanders took note of your interest in even the clumsiest grunt. You knew his life depended on what you taught him.

You grappled with the deaths of your friends who preceded you into combat and when your day came to go in July 1967, you bravely faced your future. You declared, “I have to do this. Somebody has to look after those boys.” I asked, “But who is going to look after you?” You laughed and pointed to the sky.

Four weeks in country I wrote you a letter to tell you that you were going to be a proud papa for the second time. You immediately celebrated and passed out cigars to the men in A Company of the 3rd/39th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division.

You empathized with the poor farmers in the rice paddies and the villagers of Rach Kien. You hated the war, but you loved your men and they loved you. Every day was a challenge.

The day you moved your company to the French Fort at Don Rach Cat, you wrote that at last your men had a secure, dry home when they were not on the battlefield. You nicknamed the concrete bastion Fort Courage and adopted a pig as Company A’s mascot. You wrote that Vietnam was a beautiful country. You described the sunsets from the top of the fort as romantic. You wished I could see them but more than that you wanted to be home. You marked the days off the calendar in Vietnam. I did the same at home.

You mom and dad missed your help on the farm. Your son at three was too young to put up hay and milk cows, but he had your sparkle and good looks. When we looked at his blonde hair and blue eyes, we saw you.

In November 1967 you took a bullet in the leg and declared that it was nothing. The Army gave you a Bronze Star with V device for your heroism and a Purple Heart. The only thing that you really cared about was getting your men “out of that hell hole alive.” As it turns out you and your men were air-dropped into an ambush. It was a bad day for Company A.

A few days later we met in Hawaii for R & R. You reeked of war and your skin was saturated with dirt. You scrubbed for hours to wash off the stench of Vietnam. For seven days we laughed and cried and loved one another. Your eyes filled with desperation and you asked me to make so many promises. I was scared. I tried hard not to be.

On the morning of your twenty-fifth birthday, you donned your combat gear and boarded the plane back to the war zone. Your last words to me were, “Promise me you won’t ever let my children forget me.” When you turned to wave goodbye, I knew it would be the last time that I would ever see you. You headed back to the war zone. I returned to Tennessee to face the bleak winter that lay ahead.

Your letters home reflected your dissatisfaction with the war and your deep concern about how things were going. You were eager to be off the front lines but the young lieutenants in your command were green. They needed and wanted your leadership. They trusted you. Many of your men were short-timers and were uneasy about having a new CO when it looked like they would be home free.

On February 1, 1968, you were summoned to the 3rd/39th battalion headquarters where you were given an intelligence report, stating that Company A on its island fortress was in danger of being overrun by fifteen hundred newly supply NVA troops fresh off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. You returned to your company of about one hundred and twenty men and prepared for the attack as best you could. At sunset your company came under heavy mortar and artillery fire from across the river that was full of sampans. As darkness descended you and several men went to the top of the fort to survey the situation. You determined the coordinates to return fire on the NVA’s heavy artillery and mortars from across the river. You radioed battalion headquarters and your own men simultaneously, giving orders and requesting assistance. As you spoke on the radios, an NVA artillery round landed on the concrete gun turret at your feet. The spray instantly killed you. The records show that your final orders saved all of the men in your company except for three brave men who died with you. Days later a mass grave of NVA soldiers along with damaged weaponry was found across the river. You had been successful in your efforts to disable the NVA unit.

That very night I dreamed that you were trying to get home to us – but you could not break through the invisible glass barrier that separated us. I saw your anguished face and heard your screams of terror. For seven nights in a row you tried to come home to us. Every night was the same. I lived in fear. Then on February 7, 1968, two Army officers knocked at my door. They told me you were missing in action. In an instant our dreams were shattered. At twenty-one, pregnant and raising a three-year old, I did not know what I would do without you. I agonized about what might have happened to you and queried the Army officers relentlessly every day. Within a few days your letters stopped coming, and mine to you were returned.

Two weeks later the officers returned to our home. The major held a yellow telegram and nervously read, “We regret to inform you that your husband, Captain James Eddie Reed, was killed in action.” On March 1, 1968, we buried your unviewed mangled body in Oak Hill Cemetery in our hometown. When the bugler played “Taps” and the honor guard fired the volley of shots, I felt each bullet rip through my heart. The flag from your casket, your son and our unborn child were all I had left of you. The Army didn’t tell me much. Mostly I was left to wonder, as I did for years to come.

Six days after we buried you, your daughter Jamie, a beautiful little blue-eyed blond, was born. She has your warm smile and strength of character – your funny feet. Like you, she is a fighter and natural leader. She missed you at the father-daughter nights at school. You missed her first smile, her first words, her first day at school, her first date, her senior prom, her college graduations, her weddings, and the birth of her two children. Now she is a wonderful wife and mother of a beautiful son who is named after you and a beautiful baby girl. Even though she has never seen you, she loves you. The truth is that Jamie would have loved to have danced with her dad.

You would be very proud of your son, James. Each time I look at him I see you. He has your good looks and stubborn determination. He missed you at his graduation from Texas A & M. He distinguished himself in the Corps of Cadets. When the Air Force jets flew over the parade field during Final Review, we looked up at the blue sky and said a prayer for you. Your son’s spirit of independence has taken him down his own path. Like you he is his own man. He’s an amazing husband and father to his beautiful daughter, who came to us in a hurry, born early, facing many challenges. Like you, our little Savannah is strong and fierce about life.

In 1991 the United States Army finally awarded you the Silver Star and Air Medal for your heroism on February 1, 1968. Your parents and children were so very proud of you. But then you know because we saw you at the US Capital building during the ceremony. Your mother said she was very proud of “her daughter” (that would be me) for working so hard for you. She was mostly grateful that someone had finally said “thank you” to her and made her feel good at least for a little while. Your dad was radiant with pride.

In the many years since you left us, we have never forgotten you. You gave each of us who knew you a gift of love and spirit. You made us laugh. In the end you made us cry. We think about you every day.

My dear Eddie Reed, you were a natural leader – a lover of people – a bright spot in the universe. The world is a better place for having had you. I was blessed to be your wife and the mother of your children.

Today on this Memorial Day were remember you and thank you for your contributions to our lives and to this world. You were but one of many who has given his life for his country. We love and honor each and every one of you. We thank you for your service.