This year the VA will not be holding a Memorial Day commemoration open to the public. In honor of the occasion we are publishing the remarks of The Honorable Noel Campbell, State Representative for LD1, delivered on Memorial Day, 2017, at the Veterans Cemetery in Prescott, Arizona. Please share with your friends.
As we gather together this morning, to honor the valiant men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, I am certain that we all reflect upon what Memorial Day means to us personally.
Perhaps we remember a story our grandfather told of a friend he lost in the war long ago.
Or perhaps it is more personal. We lost a close family member.
But if you are a veteran -- the loss is even deeper.
We remember brave soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines who not only died for our freedoms here at home, but who also lay down their lives for their friends on the battlefields of land and sea.
So on this Memorial Day, I would like to share with you the stories of two of my friends who lost their lives serving in Vietnam.
The first, Navy LTJG James Romanski, who died while co-piloting a combat patrol flight just two weeks into his service in Vietnam and the second, Army Corporal Bruce Wheeler, who was a different kind of casualty of the Vietnam War.
I first met Jim Romanski in 1967 when we were in flight training together at Pensacola, Florida. He was a very mild-mannered, solid kid who grew up in Portland, Oregon.
Jim always knew what he wanted in life: to start a construction business when he returned home from Vietnam.
While the rest of us were out partying, Jim stayed at the Navy base working and studying. I even recall Jim poring over construction spreadsheets at night. I greatly admired him for he had his whole life figured out -- unlike the rest of us cocky young men.
Within days of completing our helicopter gunship flight training, we were all shipped off to Vietnam and joined our squadron, the Seawolves. Jimmy arrived just days ahead of me.
We were stationed in the My Cong Delta aboard the U.S.S. Harnett County, a Navy LST. Our mission was to provide close air support for the Riverine Forces.
Two weeks into my service in Vietnam, as I prepared for familiarization combat patrol, Jimmy looked at the flight board and noticed I logged an additional flight. He protested to our squadron commander that “Romansky, not Campbell” should co-pilot this next mission so as to square up the flight hours.
After a few minutes of negotiation, he won. I removed my survival gear from the helicopter and Jim took my spot as co-pilot.
The two helicopter gunships began their patrol in the vicinity of Dung Island on the Bassac River, when suddenly, the helicopter Jimmy was co-piloting drew Viet Cong ground fire.
A .50 caliber round ripped through the aircraft's transmission, immediately causing the rotor blade to stall, sending the helicopter plummeting 800 feet into the muddy banks of the river.
There were no survivors.
LT John L. Abrams, crewman AMH3 Raymond D. Robinson, and AMS3 Dennis M. Womble also perished that day.
When the emergency call patched through to the ship's intercom announcing the loss of one of our gunships, I immediately realized just how fleeting life really is.
And as time went on, I came to understand Jim Romansky gave up his present so I could have a future.
So I stand before you today eternally grateful I have experienced a full and rewarding life -- for I should have been the co-pilot of the helicopter gunship on that fateful day.
Bruce Wheeler, for all practical purposes, never really returned home from Vietnam. He died just last year and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Bruce grew up in Coral, Michigan. Raised on a potato farm where he learned his incredible work ethic.
And he truly was a man who would give you the shirt off his back and expect nothing in return.
Bruce enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 20 and voluntarily served as a door gunner on helicopter gunships. Although he served just one tour in Vietnam, he received 3 Purple Hearts, 10 Air Medals and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
When Bruce returned from Vietnam, he spent nine months in Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver, recovering from his wounds. He lived most his life in severe pain.
But that did not stop Bruce from serving others. He served five years as an East Lansing, Michigan police officer before working as a drug interdiction pilot with the United States Customs Service. That's where I first met him.
When we were stationed in Florida together, we often shared stories of what we saw and did in Vietnam.
Bruce's wounds were more than physical.
You see, Vietnam Vets never received a hero's welcome and so we always questioned our mission and service -- as well as the public's reaction to us when we returned home from the war.
When yet another injury cut short his career with the Customs Service, Bruce's life deteriorated rapidly. He struggled with the realization his seizures and other injuries would leave him with the inability to take care of himself.
So on February 12th, 2016, Bruce called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher of his intention. Despite several minutes of trying to convince him otherwise, Bruce hung up the phone, placed a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Another soldier died that day.
I was devastated by Bruce's suicide. I received a letter from him just two weeks prior to his death asking us to visit him in Montana.
I often wonder what I could have done to save him.
But the truth of the matter is, our veterans commit suicide at an alarming rate every day.
And so the best I can do today is honor his life and service to our country.
We are blessed to live in a country where there are still men and women who protect the freedoms we hold so dear and who are also willing to risk their lives for something greater than themselves.
I would like to leave you with this quote by General George Patton as we honor of all those who have died serving our great Nation:
“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. -- Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”
God bless you all.
And may God bless this great land we call the United States of America.
Rep. Noel Campbell