When I first went to work for former Mississippi Congressmen Gene Taylor, I was going through a file cabinet and spotted a thick folder with the name “J.C. Wheat.” I sat down and read through it. J.C. was the father of Marine Lance Corporal Roy Mitchell Wheat. The folder contained all the things Congressman Taylor had done in helping to pay tribute to J.C.’s son. A Naval ship was christened in Roy Wheat’s name in 2003.
I felt a little guilty for not knowing much about Roy Wheat after I found out what he did. He was killed in Vietnam in August of 1967. A portion of his Medal of Honor citation reads:
Shouting a warning to his comrades, L/Cpl. Wheat in a valiant act of heroism hurled himself upon the mine, absorbing the tremendous impact of the explosion with his body. The inspirational personal heroism and extraordinary valor of his unselfish action saved his fellow Marines from certain injury and possible death, reflected great credit upon himself, and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
Wheat and his family have a story. I remember seeing an old haunting photo of his parents at his Medal of Honor ceremony from 1968, stoically posed, but obviously wracked by grief. I remember reading an article that talked about how his mother, a devout Christian, prayed for his safe return from Vietnam. Wheat, who was from the small community of Moselle, Miss., was like a lot of country boys across America. He was God-fearing, loved to hunt, and dreamed of one day owning his own cattle farm.
The Virtual Wall helps to tell the stories of the men and women who died in Vietnam. Many daughters and sons write heart breaking notes wrapped in tribute and grief to fathers they never knew or barely remember. Often, they plead for men who served with their father to reach out to them so they can learn something new about their dad. Like the monument in Washington it supplements, the Virtual Wall testifies to the cost of war.
There are more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Other names include John Geoghegan, a great representative of the courage of the men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. Geoghegan was killed trying to rush to the aid of one of his men, Willie Godbolt. Godbolt’s name is next to Goeghegan’s. Casualties on the wall are listed chronologically. The story of the men of the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Ia Drang is superbly depicted in the book We Were Soldiers Once… And Young. A popular movie based on the book was released in 2002.
This Memorial Day we might also remember the courageous but tragic stories of the men who took to the dangerous skies over Vietnam. Men like Harley Hall, Earl Hopper, Jr., Michael Blassie, and Lance Sijan. They all have stories that are made visible by the Virtual Wall. Sijan, who was brutally tortured by his captors as a prisoner of war, died still plotting his escape while in an emaciated condition. Defiant to the end, Sijan is a symbol of the very best of American values, resistance, and courage. His life and sacrifice is immortalized in the excellent book Into The Mouth Of The Cat: The Story Of Lance Sijan, Hero Of Vietnam.
John Wheat, who is Roy’s youngest brother, was quoted in a news story a few years back saying how important it was to recognize Roy as a hero. But he wanted people to remember the cost. Holding back tears, his brother declared:
When you see a man there that’s 19 years old, and you can look in the casket and his shoes are at the end of it. And his pants legs is neatly rolled up. It’s, that’s when you realize what war is.