Thirty-nine years ago this month, I was remembering the 4th of July Independence Day of 1969 from an Army combat forward firebase named L. Z. Stinson situated in South Vietnam's Quang Ngai Province. My recollections of that day, and those which followed, fill my mind and soul today. Freedoms are bought with the price our enemies demand: the blood and sacrifice of our country's patriot soldiers. At that place, where I served for ten and a half months as Chaplain for the First Battalion, 52nd Infantry, 198th Brigade, the Vietnam War was being waged for the worthy purpose of giving the South Vietnamese people the same opportunity to gain the same freedoms our country had honorably won by war for the peoples not only of West Germany but also of South Korea. Let's never forget that fact.
Toward the end of June 1969, Army Captain Ralph O. Bray, Jr. of Olathe, Kansas, who had already served over six years as an Air Operations Officer, arrived in-country and was assigned by my battalion commander to lead our Company C ("Charlie" company) whose mission was to protect the villagers and drive out the enemy in our Area of Operation (A O) between the Song Tra Bong ("song" in Vietnamese means river) to the north and the Song Tra Khouc to the south, and to do so in coordination with our Companies Alpha, Bravo, Delta and Echo's Reconnaissance Platoon. Our AO was about 8.5 miles north-south by 10 miles east-west---a lot of ground for eleven hundred American soldiers to protect and defend.
On or very near to that July 4th, I flew into Charlie Company's field location and met Captain Bray for the first time, greeted and welcomed him, and he granted me permission to give his men my religious worship service, devotion and prayers. When I finished, I talked awhile with Capt. Bray. He was warm, generous of spirit and well in charge. At his temporary CP, I greeted the company medic PFC Ron Cremer and an infantryman named PFC Cody Calkins both of whom I had known before Capt. Bray's command. To be frank, I left to fly on to my next day's service gratefully impressed with Capt. Bray, or I should say "Ralph".
About seven days later, I received word that Ralph Bray, Ron Cremer, Cody Calkins along with two other soldiers, Jose Cisneros and Barry Bickel, had all been killed on July 12th by a booby-trapped 105mm artillery round exploding in the hedgerow as they were setting up night laager and defensive perimeter at the end of that day's hot long march.
Their chaplain (this writer) immediately prayed for his men, one and all. God bless them and keep them, preserve their immortal souls. The pain penetrated, swelled up and would not quit that day or in the many days ahead, during which I carried on the same pastoral duties for all my men, every one, continuously until mid- March 1970. Little did I then know I would be mourning for 39 years for these five American soldiers, and not one bit less for the many more I knew, shepherded and served, as "their chaplain".
As I sat at my computer on July 4, 2008, listening to the fireworks sounding in the distance, I was reminded of two other facts I wish to share with you of those days, way back then.
Within a very few days of their deaths on the 12th of July, I performed a memorial service on the hill for these "dearly departed" soldiers of mine (they were of my flock) and of our beloved country: which has been so tragically and unjustly slandered throughout these 39 intervening years.
Shortly after the memorial, it came to my attention that Cody Calkins survived the blast that killed the four others, in fact he helped the company's remaining medic, Bill Daniels, with the dire triage sustained by the wounded, then Cody went aboard the last medevac helicopter because he told Daniels his head was aching. The that night or next morning, Cody died at the emergency hospital in Chu Lai from brain hemorrhage caused by a minute steel sliver blasted into his neck or head that last day of their precious lives.
This account is based on the best of my personal knowledge, gathered information and my memory, thus, it is subject to the limits of memory well known to all. It was my highest privilege in life to have served unarmed in the "Hell" that always is war during my 365 days in Vietnam in 1969-70. For that I shall be forever grateful to the United States of America and to you, The American People. To be further candid, my four years of service as an Army Chaplain (1968-1972) far outweigh in my estimation the 42 years I have been an attorney here in Georgia.
My younger brother, Brian Ritchie, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D. C. A naval flight officer, he died in the crash of his aircraft-carrier jet in 1972.
Families truly speak witness to the price this nation's enemies extract, which those slanderers cruelly discount, and may the latter stand fully rebuked.
The traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall lists Ralph O. Bray, Jr., Barry W. Bickel, Cody R. Calkins, Jose B. Cisneros and Ronald M. Cremer at Panel 21W, Lines 105, 106 and 107, that you might see for yourselves. I have a tracing in hand now, as the traveling Wall "happened" (there are no coincidences) to be in our Georgia town the very day after something moved me to recall and record these indelible memories.