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November 2010

A Soldier’s Story

Department of Obscure References 

We were sitting—Paul, his wife Pat, Crystal and I—in a booth at the Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant in Santa Nella, having lunch. Paul had recently purchased Sean's truck, and we were getting together to iron out a DMV registration issue. Paul is one of those people you instantly like, and a talker (not unlike some of my siblings). When we met in the Andersen's parking lot he told me how he had modified the Chevy to go fast—really, really fast—and had been stopped on Highway 5 for speeding. Naturally, he talked his way out of a sure ticket.

As we had lunch and chatted, the conversation meandered through topics of marriage, kids, grandkids, the economy, and whether one of their grandchildren should join the military or was wasting his talent doing so. Paul had earlier mentioned meeting his wife and getting married a few days later, and I asked him if he was a veteran (which might have explained the fast courtship). Judging from (what I thought was) his age, I figured he had probably served in Vietnam.

Yes, Paul said, he was a veteran, and from the Vietnam era. He had been drafted, even though he was then married and a father. Paul was an excellent marksman and was targeted for a leadership position, but failed the test. When his Commanding Officer asked him about it, Paul admitted that he was illiterate—he couldn't read, and could barely write. "If you gave that test to me again orally, I'd ace it", Paul said. The CO did just that, and Paul passed it, just as he had predicted. With that, Paul found himself on a transport heading to Asia. Another era's "don't ask, don't tell."

What Paul told me next really surprised me. He and his buddies were on their way to Vietnam, but only made it as far as Korea. "We were in a lot of places we weren't supposed to be", Paul said. Paul told me about driving up over a rise with his lieutenant seated next to him in the jeep. Paul had earlier told him that he could keep him alive, but "you have to jump when I tell you to." As they came over the rise a North Korean stood up out of the brush. The American's orders were to shoot only after being fired upon, and the North Koreans knew this. So when Paul saw the North Korean, he pushed his lieutenant out one side of the jeep while he jumped out of the other side. An exchange of fire ensued, and the North Korean was killed. Paul had killed his first person in combat, and couldn't stop laughing. The lieutenant didn't understand, until Paul showed him the bullet hole in the windshield of the jeep; had Paul been in the jeep for another instant, he would have been killed.

I was still digesting this story—I'd never heard of covert operations in North Korea after that war ended—when I saw Paul's face darken. Soon, he was sobbing uncontrollably. Paul's wife tried to console him. Crystal and I looked at each other, wondering what to do. The story that came next was even more amazing.

Paul had a friend, Mike, who was also "in places we weren't supposed to be". Mike was apparently a big man, linebacker-sized, and was skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Paul was noticeably quiet about the details of Mike's death. He would only say that there was an ambush, that Mike single-handedly killed a number of North Koreans before being killed himself, and that a lot of guys owed their lives to Mike.

Officially, Mike died in South Korea after being hit by a truck. Paul accompanied Mike's body back to the US for his funeral, pledging to his dead friend that he would tell Mike's story.

Paul looked up at me with tears in his eyes and said, "but I never did". I looked at him and said, "well Paul, now you have".