102 years ago, November 11th, 1918, at 11:11 AM, The United States entered into an armistice ending its involvement in WWI, The Great War that would end all wars.
In 1954, the traditional Armistice Day, with a tradition of standing to face east at 11:11 AM, officially became Veteran’s Day to celebrate the veterans of all wars.
Long before I was aware of this holiday, I was enamored with a particular army soldier fighting on the other side of the world in a fascinating place called Vietnam. As a three year old, I pronounced it, “Bietnam.”
Uncle Garry Dean Jolliff was my father’s younger brother, born in 1944, Elwood, Indiana. He grew up playing baseball, riding his bike, and doing all the typical things a boy of the 1950s would do.
Uncle Garry was probably the more freer spirit of the two brothers, always ready for a buffet of exuberant laughter and hilarious stories, and a naturally spontaneous nature; my father, while as equally big-hearted and warm, was a bit reserved and witty with brilliant sarcasm.
Vietnam. I would pull the huge atlas from the World Book Encyclopedia bookcase to find the bookmarked section where Vietnam was located. I’d scan all the cities and nearby countries. Vietnam. That’s where Uncle Garry was.
Our family had a reel-to-reel portable tape recorder and the family would gather to offer messages to Uncle Garry. Sometimes, it took several days to finish up a reel. We’d mail it to Vietnam and several weeks later, a package would arrive with Uncle Garry’s responses and stories. To me, it was thrilling to think my voice was being heard on the other side of the world in Vietnam.
We also wrote letters on air mail paper. As I grew older, I read through his letters, learning portions of his stories that would have been horrifying. Some pages had caked mud from when he was sitting in a fox with water up to his waist. Another letter had peculiar dark stains; a soldier buddy next to him had been killed. Uncle Garry continued writing through the blood, stating there was little left of the man next to him.
There were several near misses. One of those near misses was nearly fatal. Indiana US Senator, Birch Bayh, was successful in getting our seriously wounded soldier off the battle field and onto a chopper. Sensing his fellow soldier would not survive, a Black soldier with a less severe wound, took off his Saint Christopher medal and fastened it around Uncle Garry’s neck.
Uncle Garry returned home; the soldier did not. Uncle Garry wore the medal for many years.
Upon his return, I was delighted with entertaining stories, most, I’m now certain, were fabricated for my young ears. The real stories of Vietnam were gruesome, unimaginable, beyond nightmare quality.
Shrapnel was embedded in Uncle Garry’s back, slowly moving into the spine. The realization of remaining crippled the remainder of his life, the next thirty years, were met with his typical courage and jovial nature. Aunt Jenny, always at his side, was probably the only soul who knew his hidden fears and anguish.
Vietnam. Uncle Garry introduced me to a far off world where in my young imagination, was exotic and thrilling. I was to later learn the horrors and truth, but I’ll always be grateful for Uncle Garry broadening my world and connecting me to a piece of our nation’s history to which he played a lead role.
Happy Veteran’s Day, Uncle Garry… know you are loved.