Winner: Alejandro Villalva, Sergeant First Class, U.S. Army Reserve, 42, San Antonio, TX
Richard sat silently, transfixed, his entire attention riveted to the photo that he found in the illustrated book of the Vietnam War which his grandson had just given him as a Christmas gift.
The photo was a hauntingly brutal depiction of young men in war. The image showed several wounded U.S. Marines in Vietnam, atop a tank. In the foreground, one critically wounded man lay prone on his back, clearly unconscious and partially naked, with no shirt, an IV drip tube protruding from one arm. Alongside the wounded Marine, cradling him with intense concern, a helmeted U.S. Navy Corpsman (Medic) displayed an unforgettable expression that burned with grave seriousness.
“Grandfather, do you like your book?”
Richard sat mutely in stone silence, enveloped in rising emotions that flooded his memory, swirling and swimming, as the photo transported him to a far different time, to another lifetime.
He blinked, and looked up, abruptly retracted back to his current life, sitting with his grandson in the protective comfort of his peaceful living room.
He paused, his voice detached, low.
“Yes, I’m fine….I’m sorry, Ben. I found a photo in your book, and it took me back to my time in Vietnam.”
“It’s special because I am in it, and I’ve not seen it in many years….”, his voice trailing off.
Ben exclaimed, “You are in a photo shown in that book??!!”
Richard deflected his gaze downward.
“I’ve not told many people. Some memories of my combat tour are just too painful to express.”
“Come here, and I’ll show you this photo.”
Ben walked over, and kneeled alongside his grandfather, who then pointed at the Corpsman in the photo.
“That young man is me, and I was all of 19. The wounded Marine I am holding is Private First Class James G. Blaine. James was seriously wounded in action, and in spite of my best efforts, he later died…”
Gazing intently at the image, the photo then took Richard back to that terrible day that changed him forever.
“I was a Corpsman in Charlie Company, 1/5 Marines, when this photo was taken during the battle of Hue City, in Vietnam, in February 1968.”
“The battle was vicious, and we were fighting the North Vietnamese Army at very close range. It was brutal, horrific…”
“We were fighting uphill in some fortress rubble when James was hit by rifle fire….just alongside me.”
Richard breathed deep, his voice filling with emotion.
“We evacuated him, and placed our wounded on a tank, when the photo was taken. I tried desperately to save him, but his injuries were too severe. That moment….in that terrible battle…. has never left my memory….”
“Grandfather, I’m sorry if my gift has brought back any unwanted memories…”
“Ben, your gift is special, because it is a powerful reminder to never forget our fallen, to remember and cherish those young men, like James, who did not return home.”
“We honor them, Ben, everyday, in all we do. And in honoring them, we remember them, and therefore, they are still with us.”
“I understand now, Grandfather.”
“Yes….Never forget them, Ben. Never forget them….”