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Tim Van Schmidt
My friend is a Vietnam War veteran and we talk about it often.
More than fifty years after his tour of duty was over, his experiences in Vietnam are still very, very vivid to him.
My friend was a 1st Lieutenant in the Marines, stationed in Quang Tri, just five miles south of the DMZ and the major infiltration point for the Viet Cong. The Lieutenant volunteered.
The Lieutenant has recently attended reunions with others from his officer class and who can’t be there is as impactful as who is. He and his fellow soldiers remember the fallen when they get together.
The Vietnam War experience was life-changing for many who served. The Lieutenant describes it like this: “We stepped out of hamburger heaven and we were dropped into a foreign culture. Death was all around you.”
He remembers one fearful night in particular when a rocket attack hit the officer’s club he had left just ten minutes before. He was just bunking down when he heard the first rocket, then the second. By then he was rolling into his flak jacket and helmet while the fifth one hit the club.
Those who survived these experiences share a special bond.
That’s why The Lieutenant has taken to honoring other soldiers he encounters in his life in a special way.
He personally presents custom-created silver bracelets to other veterans as a sign of respect. This isn’t a thing for charity. It isn’t connected to a group. He just does it.
The Lieutenant considers the unique gifts he gives to other Vietnam veterans as a “welcome home” — something that was in short supply for many Vietnam-era soldiers when they returned home from duty — from someone who has been there.
“Vietnam was an unpopular war, and I don’t want our sacrifices to be forgotten. For those of us who fought and many died for it, freedom has a price the protected will never know,” he said.
This personal gifting tradition The Lieutenant has established was the result of a gift to him. A Vietnam veteran he encountered had himself been gifted with a cloth wrist band with a Vietnam Service Medal sewn across the center.
This veteran passed it on to The Lieutenant when he remarked that it was “something for everyone to see” in memory of the Vietnam experience.
The Lieutenant went one better. He found a “Marine jeweler” in Denver and had a sterling silver bracelet made that also featured the colorful bands of service. The next one he ordered went to the man who had given him the cloth band.
Since then, The Lieutenant has gifted 17 similar silver bracelets to people he meets. For example, when he was in Washington DC for a reunion of his Basic School Class, he was so moved by a talk by a Captain at the Marine Base at Quantico, he gave him the bracelet right off of his wrist.
“We exchanged a hug that about broke my back, but it was one of the most satisfying bracelet exchanges I’ve had,” The Lieutenant said.
Recently, he gave bracelets to the parents and other family members of a young soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. His name stretches across the polished metal. The inscription includes his KIA date and also reads “My son.”
The Lieutenant had met this soldier just before shipping out to Afghanistan and says, “I talked with him for five minutes, and I knew I was talking to a warrior.”
At his gravesite recently, The Lieutenant and the soldier’s father viewed helmet cam video footage of minutes before he was killed by a sniper. He was set to become a Green Beret after his tour. He died with twenty days left.
The Lieutenant remembers the internment vividly, the procession including “a rider-less horse followed by a squad of Green Berets there to celebrate his life.”
The Lieutenant honors his memory with his gifts.
I’ve seen The Wall in Washington DC — a very public memorial for those who died because of the Vietnam War — and it is impressive. It is important that so many are remembered. A memorial for those who died in Afghanistan is surely appropriate also.
This exchange — between The Lieutenant, other veterans and the families of those who have died — is something way different. It’s something direct and pure. It’s an act of love, person to person, for those who made it home and the memories of those who didn’t.
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Explore his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”