When I look at our flag it takes me back to a time and place I will never forget. I was 18 in 1968, when I went to join my husband, Jim, at the Naval Air Station Atsugi Japan. He was on R&R but had to go back to Vietnam in three days. He would be gone for three weeks and I would be all alone in a strange country. Each day that he was gone to Vietnam the thought was always that he might never return.
While I was at Atsugi I volunteered at the Army hospital at Camp Zama. The hospital was large and I found out later that it had over 1,000 beds and was staffed with what seemed like hundreds. I thought I could assist the hospital staff with the wounded guys coming up from the field hospitals in Vietnam.
Being young I did not know what to expect. I was really surprised when I got to Camp Zama. As I walked down the hall I noticed everything was painted green, not real dark but a soft green that matched the light shirts the staff wore. Everyone was just rushing around and did not pay much attention to me. Then I noticed the smell. The smell was of blood and urine mixed with rot. The wounded were everywhere, the rooms were full; young boys waited in passageways. Most of the boys had missing limbs. Hands, arms, feet and legs were gone. Others had terrible burns and shrapnel wounds. Some were crying, others yelling out for anyone to come to them for they were alone.
As I walked the hall all these boys wanted to talk to me or just touch my arm as I went by. The Army staff was doing its best to tend to these boys but just seemed frustrated with the amount of work and care these boys needed. The war in Vietnam had been escalating all year and hundreds of wounded were pouring into Japan.
I finally reached the end of the hall and here sat a young kid like me in a wheel chair. He was missing his left leg and both hands had serious bums that had healed but were scarred and deformed. I knelt down by this boy to see if maybe he needed help or maybe just to talk. I noticed his right hand was clenched in a fist and a small amount of cloth could be seen through his fingers. It was small and tiny but he clutched it like it was precious to him. I asked him what it was and he just held out his hand and very carefully opened it. There on his burned hand was a tiny U.S. flag. He held it like it was more precious than gold. Made of cloth it also looked burned and its colors were faded but still identifiable as our flag. As we began to talk he told me how much he loved our country and had carried the flag since leaving home. He said he had taken the flag out on numerous times and posted it while out in the jungle. He looked at me and said if he had to do it all over again he would give his all again without question for it was his duty as an American.
I had never heard such words. They have been in my heart forever. I had to leave shortly thereafter, and regretfully I never asked his name. On my other trips to Zama I never saw him again, but I will always remember him as a boy with no bitterness in his heart, a true patriot, and he was there for us. When I put my hand over my heart to say the pledge of allegiance, or see our flag blowing in the wind I’m often taken back to that boy at Camp Zama Army Hospital. Don’t ever forget our veterans and those that are serving now, they need our prayers daily. God bless us all.