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Uncle Tom’s Sacrifice: What Memorial Day is All About

Posted on Sunday, May 28, 2023
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AMAC Exclusive – By David P. Deavel

Sticklers will point out that the Memorial Day holiday is to honor those who have died in the service of their country—Veterans Day in November is the proper time to honor those who survived. But American culture has always been flexible about such things. In my family as a child, Memorial Day was always the occasion to tend to all our family graves and leave flowers on them. We remembered in particular those family members who served their country, survived, and passed on later. Perhaps that American practice is why Congress designated May as Armed Forces Month in 1999.

Memorial Day caps a month in which we honor all those who have served. We do so because we all understand that those whose sacrifice was completed on the battlefield or in a military hospital are worthy of honor and memory. So, too, are those whose sacrifice for their country began on the battlefield but continued long after they had taken off their uniforms. Many vets are like my Uncle Everett Sowers, who served in the Pacific Theater for the U. S. Navy in World War II, survived, and suffered for many years after from what they used to call shell shock but now call PTSD.

This Memorial Day my family remembers one such brave American who survived his experience in Vietnam but whose life was radically changed. Tom Kirk, my wife’s uncle, passed away a few weeks ago in La Jolla, California, at the age of 76. Awarded the Purple Heart, he was a member of three different platoons, two of which were decimated or worse. His third one was not the charm, for a grenade thrown by a little girl ended his service, changing this golden California boy’s future in ways that would always mark him out as one who had sacrificed for his country.

Tom was born in 1946. His own father, Thomas Michael Kennedy Kirk, was a medical doctor who had risen to the rank of full Colonel in the 6th Army’s 1st Cavalry Division medical unit serving under General Douglas MacArthur. No stranger to the bloodiness of war, Dr. Kirk had, with a couple of young doctors and the approval of MacArthur, accompanied the Marines on the beachheads to save lives all the way to the Philippines and to Japan after the bomb. They set up hospitals all the way up and cared for our men, the Filipinos, and the Japanese. After the war, like so many Americans, Dr. Tom brought his wife, Tommie (yes, her name was Thomasine), and the two children Helen and Pat (Patricia), from Dayton, Ohio to La Jolla, California, when that state was a land not only of beautiful topography and heavenly weather but also freedom and opportunity. This was where Tom was born.

Like children of that age and time, Tom spent much of his time at the beach or rock climbing with his sister and friends. Not a board surfer himself, he loved to body surf and swam like a fish—details that would shape his future. When he was a teenager, his older sister Pat (my mother-in-law) was working on board a ship for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, now called NOAA, doing marine biological research. The ship’s cook had burned his arm on the galley stove and could not go out on the next voyage. The ship’s Filipino mess mate could take over as cook.  Who knew, the captain asked, some young man who could replace him?  Pat drove home and announced that she had a job for Tom. The Filipino cook had to adjust his own ideas of meals (fish boiled in oil was not well received as a proper breakfast). Tom had to learn that the coffee needed to be strong, but things worked out and Tom enjoyed the sea.

When he turned 18, Pat told Tom he ought to enlist in the Coast Guard or the Navy rather than be drafted to go to Vietnam. Tom insisted he wouldn’t be drafted. Perhaps his optimism was influenced by the fact that several of his friends who were drafted were labeled 4-F (unfit for duty) due to their oddly gnarled feet from thousands of hours on a surfboard. When Tom’s number was called, the swimmer had no such luck, though his very small feet (size 7 ½) almost excused him from duty due to the small number of small boots kept by the Army.

When the family took him to the base to say goodbye in December 1967, his mother, Tommie, burst into tears as they lost sight of Tom. In a fit of clairvoyance, she said that he would not return the same. Though Dr. Tom told her not to say such things, she couldn’t help it.

God did protect him, however. His first platoon was disbanded due to the fact that most everyone was killed but Tom and the medic. His second platoon, too, was largely killed. Pat found out about that one several years later when Tom had returned home and woke up screaming. He told her that he and his unit were crossing a swampy territory when the Vietcong surrounded the swamp, poured gas into the water, and set it on fire. The swimmer from La Jolla instinctively dove to the bottom and held his breath for as long as he could. Seeing that the fire had gone over him but hearing the gunfire, he managed to pull a reed from the bottom of the water and use it to breathe. When he could no longer hear the gunshots, he slowly put his head above the water and discovered that a few—too few—of the other soldiers had done the same thing.

His third and final platoon was part of the 101st Air Cavalry—the Screaming Eagles. Now the infantryman was riding in a helicopter that would hover in and let the men jump down. Tom quickly learned not to be the first to jump because that guy would draw the fire and not to be the last because the chopper would be lifting off.  You didn’t want to jump from fifteen or twenty feet up.

No, the moment of destiny came not while jumping but standing. Assigned to keep watch over the road coming from a small Vietnamese village, Tom and a couple other soldiers were mostly observing older women and children who posed no apparent threat. When a young, eleven- or twelve-year-old girl came down the trail with a pot on her head and a bag in her free hand, they didn’t think much of it. As she came by, men from the village started making noise, drawing their attention behind her. Too late they realized that the bag she carried had a grenade in it—and it was coming right at them.   

At that moment, back in La Jolla, Tommie woke up and told Dr. Tom that she knew Tom had been hit.

Was it bad, he asked?

Yes.

Was he dead?

She didn’t know.

The grenade had exploded near his head, eviscerating one eye, taking part of his ear off, and embedding shrapnel in the other eye. Because of his injuries, Tom needed surgery immediately if his remaining eye were to be saved. The Vietcong put dirty bits of metal in their explosives so that those who survived would also get infected. The soldiers radioed for a helicopter.

When the Western Union telegram arrived a few days later telling the Kirk family about their son, the retired colonel Dr. Kirk called to figure out what the situation was. When he got hold of the hospital in Japan where Tom had been taken, he found out Tom’s remaining eye was saved. One of Tom’s toes had to be amputated since a bullet had pierced his boot, and he had several long gashes in his chest.

Tom had some residual vision in his remaining eye, which was aided for a while by what are known as scleral contact lenses.  Tom could see a little in bright light.  When there was no sun or strong light, however, he was completely blind. When Pat was visiting him in San Francisco’s Letterman Army Hospital, Tom told her that he had decided he would never get married because it would be unfair to a woman given the certainty that he would eventually be completely blind.

Perhaps it was a mistaken sense of honor to make such a decision. But he really believed it. He certainly did not give up on making a life for himself, however. Despite his near blindness, he started a landscaping business and decided to get a driver’s license. Fortune favors the bold, and Tom was clever enough to make most people think he could see. (Oddly enough, most people looked at his glass eye since that looked more normal than the one that had been saved.) Just as he was about to take the eye test, the DMV worker had to attend to another person in line. When she returned and asked whether they had finished, Tom replied that he supposed they had. He had his license.

Tom was smart enough to stick to the back roads and only drive during the day. Fender benders were, perhaps, inevitable even so. After bumping into someone, he would immediately get out and apologize to the person, explaining that he had lost an eye in Vietnam. Most were mollified. But eventually he had to give up driving himself. In later years, he sold his business to a dear friend whom he had hired in the early days of his business and whose sons he thoroughly liked.

The thin young man eventually became a portly fellow, and sometimes awkward to deal with in public due to some mental health issues—no doubt exacerbated by the injuries he had received to his head from that grenade. To the end, however, he was a man who loved to help people in need and loved to celebrate things. There were, no doubt, some “friends” who took advantage of his generosity in his later years. Yet his heart was pure. I have inscribed in my mind a picture of him two decades ago dancing in a jaunty summer hat at our wedding with his sisters, nieces, and nephew. The man who had foregone marriage could celebrate the joy of those who had not.

Tom didn’t lose his life in Vietnam. But he did sacrifice it in profound ways. This Memorial Day let us remember all those who died while fighting—and those whose lives were never the same. Their profound gift should spur us to ask what we are willing to die for and how we might gratefully live.

David P. Deavel teaches at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, and is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative.

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jeanette
jeanette
9 months ago

tThank you for a beautiful story. very inspiring.

Marcia Bullard
Marcia Bullard
9 months ago

God bless this man for his service to our country, fighting a war that was unpopular and unwinable. My husband was also in the 101st. He was a crew chief/door gunner on a Huey helicopter, the ones that dropped soldiers off on their missions. Helicopters were shot at also a his took a hit. The bullet imbedded into the wall next to his head. He returned from the war seemingly healthy. We started a family and life was good. Until he was diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 30 when our daughter was six weeks old. He was told that it was likely caused by Agent Orange which was sprayed liberally around the base. He died at the age of 36, not during service to his country but as a result of it. God bless all who have and will continue to serve our country. Memorial Day is for them as well because of their sacrifice.

Paul W
Paul W
9 months ago

So many fought, bled, were maimed (physically or mentally) or died for this country. It is both heartbreaking and infuriating to see what is being done to this country by greedy, evil people; this country that so many sacrificed their fortunes, health and lives for. My sincere thanks to all of them. may their sacrifices have not been in vain. God…please bless this country once again.

Ann S
Ann S
9 months ago

Everyone should stop today and think of all the soldiers who sacrificed their lives on foreign soil. And thank those men and women. Stop and visit a military cemetery. This is a day of reflection and self awareness. Would you do what this uncle did for your country or a foreign country? May God bless all those who served and sacrificed their lives so we may live free.

Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
9 months ago

TOO All Vets who died for US this day

David Millikan
David Millikan
9 months ago

Stories like the one about Tom should be told to others so they know and understand how Brave and Honorable Men are to serve to Protect our Freedom and Constitutional Rights against Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Wokeness evils.
When you see a Veteran show Respect and Thank him for your Freedom that you take for granted.
God Bless each and every one of them and the United States of America.
Thank you for my Freedom.

Smike
Smike
9 months ago

“….and I’ll defend her still today, God bless the USA”
Let us not forget; Who we are, Why we put that uniform on and What we stand for

Lyn
Lyn
9 months ago

I am very sad for him but glad to read he changed and had a good life. My Dad joined the Navy in 1946 and used the G I bill to go to college and get a PhD in physics. I was always impressed by him and guys like him. Thanks for writing about him

Joseph Meyer
Joseph Meyer
9 months ago

Good article. Thanks. But. “eviscerating one eye”?

Mari In SC
Mari In SC
9 months ago

I have a cousin who came back very mentally damaged and who suffered the effects of Agent Orange. He also lived for several more decades but Vietnam ended his marriage, cost him contact with his two sons and affected every aspect of his life. Thank you for this article.

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