- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2003

Not all Americans pay serious heed to the reasons for Memorial Day. Like the burden of fighting wars, remembering the dead often is left to the few, including those who love them.Douglas C. Payne, 53, says he never has forgotten to remember the fellow Marine who died saving his life in Vietnam more than 34 years ago. And he is haunted by doubt that the life he now lives is worth the sacrifice that earned his buddy, Pfc. Oscar P. Austin, a posthumous Medal of Honor.

“The first time I met any of his family I was feeling guilty, oh yeah,” Mr. Payne recalls. “And I could see where his family would feel that I wasn’t worth him giving his life for me.”

On Feb. 23, 1969, Pfc. Austin scrambled out of a safe foxhole and, with his own body, shielded the injured and unconscious Mr. Payne, then a 19-year-old lance corporal, from a hand grenade and rifle fire.

The mortally wounded Pfc. Austin shot a North Vietnamese soldier who was storming their position, then fell dead 39 days past his 21st birthday.

Mr. Payne has traveled to Washington from California over the years to touch Oscar’s name on Panel 32W Row 88 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He has left letters and thanks at the Wall for a life that he concedes wavered into alcoholism and despair before he regained his balance.

Families of wartime dead and veterans like Mr. Payne know precisely how to observe this Memorial Day, when newly turned earth lies raw on military graves resulting from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, which took 248 U.S. lives.

Elite soldiers of the Old Guard placed individual American flags over the weekend at each grave in Arlington National Cemetery’s gardens of stone.

Today at 11 a.m., President Bush plans to lay a wreath at Arlington and express a grateful nation’s homage, then meet with families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Communities across the land prepared for ceremonies, parades and other rituals of remembrance today. At 3 p.m. local time much of the nation will be asked to pause at airports, sports stadiums, shopping malls and other public places for the “minute of reflection” that became a fixture in recent years.

An estimated 35 million Americans were expected to travel during the long holiday weekend. For some 162,000 Washington-area families, the only memorial in mind was Lane Memorial Bridge and getting across the Chesapeake on that span’s busiest weekend of the year.

Then and now

It was just that way for Deborah Peterson of Alexandria until Oct. 23, 1983, when Islamic Jihad terrorists drove more than a ton of TNT into a U.S. military barracks in Beirut. The 241 soldiers, sailors and Marines killed there included her 20-year-old brother, Marine Cpl. James C. Knipple.

“Until then, except for our father who was in the Navy, we were just very typical, complacent Americans who thought of Memorial Day as the opening day of the pool and a three-day weekend and a barbecue,” says Mrs. Peterson, who works in the pharmacy at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. “Now we go up to the cemetery very often. I haven’t worked a Memorial Day for 20 years.”

She says the family also visits Arlington National Cemetery each Oct. 23 — “the day of remembrance” for the Beirut families — and on the anniversary of the death from cancer of her father, retired Navy Capt. John Knipple, buried one row over and five graves down from his son in Section 59.

It is in Section 59 that 21 of the Beirut dead lie, along with two of the 19 U.S. servicemen killed June 26, 1996, in a similar terrorist bombing at the Khobar Towers military complex in Dharan, Saudi Arabia.

At a ceremony in 1996 near the cedars of Lebanon planted in Section 59, the Knipple clan befriended Fran and Gary Heiser beside the grave of their son, Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Michael Heiser. He was 25 when he died in Khobar Towers.

“I used to go to Arlington maybe once a year. Now I stay home and pout and feel sorry for myself,” Mrs. Heiser says in a lighthearted way.

What she and her husband, a retired Air Force sergeant major, actually do is roam every month or so from their north Florida house in a motor home, making new acquaintances who blessedly don’t know or ask what happened to their son and only child.

“It’s forced recreation, rather than stay home and watch the world crumble,” Mrs. Heiser says, and Memorial Day plans this year don’t include visiting their son’s grave at Arlington or memorials at Patrick and Maxwell air bases.

How long does it takes for such a loss to heal?

“I think the pain probably never goes away,” Mrs. Heiser says. “I don’t know, but that’s what I’m thinking. Not yet.”

The distance to go

Cpl. Knipple’s mother, Pauline Knipple of Alexandria, says the passage of 20 years hasn’t lessened the loss much.

“It gets better, but it doesn’t ever go away,” says Mrs. Knipple, whose rheumatoid arthritis keeps her in a wheelchair. “Just talking about Jim’s going and dying will start me crying when I say what a great kid he was, or when I see him in my mind practicing football at Jefferson High.

“My heart aches because I know there’s people out there who have to go that distance to get to where they have to accept the heartache, because you don’t have a choice, you know.”

Memories remain fresh as well for Frank and Judy Adamouski of Springfield, Va. This morning they planned to walk the grounds of Arlington, where they last saw their son alive at a friend’s funeral New Year’s Eve — and where they buried him April 24.

The grave of Army Capt. James F. Adamouski, 29, is in Section 60, a flat, low field, beside those of 19 other troopers killed in central Iraq. Capt. Adamouski was one of six soldiers who died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed April 2 north of Karbala.

An experienced helicopter pilot whose home base was Fort Stewart, Ga., Capt. Adamouski was not flying the Black Hawk when it went down. He left behind a wife, Meighan, who had married him just seven months before, in addition to his parents and three sisters.

“It’s a great loss for us as a family, but we both could see outside that — that as a society, that’s the price we pay to make things better,” says Meighan Adamouski, 29, weeping during an interview. “There will always be a tear, but Memorial Day is a time to honor him, and I can’t explain how truly honored I am to call myself Capt. James Adamouski’s wife.”

‘A loss so overwhelming’

Some professional soldiers despair that the nation ever will properly recognize the sacrifices of the armed forces, in which “all gave some, some gave all.”

Each death was individual, but the overall numbers are immense: The Pentagon counts 1.04 million Americans in uniform killed in wars since 1775, and 617,388 of those in the 20th century. More than 87 percent were in the Army.

That terrible official toll does not include military deaths in accidents, training mishaps or terrorism such as the September 11 attack on the Pentagon. Nor does it include daring expeditions like the attempted rescue of hostages in Iran (eight dead), or such half-forgotten operations as “Urgent Fury” in Grenada (19), “Just Cause” in Panama (23), “Restore Hope” in Somalia (43), or “Uphold Democracy” in Haiti (four).

The total includes 364,511 Union troops killed in the Civil War, but the Pentagon does not estimate Confederate deaths. Historian Thomas L. Livermore, a leading authority on Civil War casualties, estimates the Confederate dead at 258,000.

The Civil War gave birth on both sides to the custom of decorating warriors’ graves. Residents of dozens of Southern cities scattered spring flowers on Confederate graves in 1866. Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi still observe Confederate Memorial Day in April.

Historians trace today’s Memorial Day tradition to the “Decoration Day” turnout on May 30, 1868. Army Maj. Gen. John A. Logan had ordered a nationwide observance, including at Arlington, where the first military burial was held four years earlier. Gen. Logan proclaimed “the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.”

A 1971 law moved several national holidays to convenient Mondays, including the century-old May 30 observance, by then renamed Memorial Day. That law still nettles some traditionalists.

“Memorial Day is not the day to remember troops who died to protect our freedoms the way it used to be. It’s just another day off, but I’d say the same about Presidents Day,” says retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who capped a 29-year military career by serving as the first President Bush’s national security adviser. “I know when I was growing up as a kid, Memorial Day meant something.”

President Abraham Lincoln struggled to describe that meaning in his Nov. 21, 1864, letter to Lydia Bixby of Boston, who lost five sons in battle during the Civil War, still reckoned as the nation’s costliest in human terms.

“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save,” Lincoln wrote of those sacrificed “upon the altar of freedom.”

The cards dealt

Capt. Adamouski, a 1995 graduate of West Point who made a home with his wife in Savannah, came from a family that understood such sacrifice. His father, a retired lieutenant colonel, saw combat during 23 years in the Army and continues to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to honor soldiers he commanded.

“I’m going to make sure you get a funeral like this one,” Capt. Adamouski had told his dad after the New Year’s Eve funeral at Arlington for his friend. Four months later, it became instead the father’s duty for the son.

“It’s ironic that I made sure he got a funeral like that,” says Col. Adamouski, who calls himself heartbroken. “Sometimes the cards get dealt in a funny way.”

Today’s trip to Arlington will be Col. Adamouski’s second since his son was buried, and he says he lost control of his emotions last time. His wife went several other times. When they returned together early this month, Mrs. Adamouski brought flowers and placed them at the 20 graves for soldiers killed in Iraq.

The grave of James Adamouski is not yet marked by a white headstone. A temporary green sign bears the officer’s name along with the dates he entered this life and left it.

“We go and we say a private prayer and we have a lot of thoughts,” Col. Adamouski says. “We have all of those questions that you can’t get answers to. … I guess I’ll always do that.”

For his daughter-in-law, Meighan, Memorial Day had meant “going to the beach and playing volleyball” — until she attended parades with her husband-to-be. Even then, she recalls, the pageantry and patriotism made her cry.

“Now I think I understand where that’s coming from,” the young widow says.

A fourth-grade teacher in special education, she is moving in with her in-laws and will study public administration at George Mason University. She has been unable to bring herself to visit her husband’s grave since the funeral.

“I want to wait a bit. And I want to do it myself,” she says. “That’s a personal time that I want to be by myself. I’ll probably cry, and laugh.”

‘To be so brave’

Although eligible for burial at Arlington in 1969, Oscar Palmer Austin was buried far away in Phoenix’s Greenwood Memorial Park.

The Marine private’s memory lives on in the Navy’s ultramodern Aegis Guided Missile Destroyer DDG-79 that bears his name, and at a stone monument outside the county hospital in his native Nacogdoches, Texas. For $50, those browsing www.historyshopping.com can get an embroidered polo shirt bearing an image of the $800 million ship.

The monument in Nacogdoches includes his name and photo with the inscription: “An honor to one, a tribute to all, who sacrificed for our freedom.”

Leslie Enright, 35, a country fiddler and something of a local celebrity, was asked in December by the Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel to list the four persons she admired most. She named her husband, Arthur; George W. Bush; Martha Stewart; and Oscar Austin.

“It’s such a compelling story, just what an ordinary person put in that situation chooses to do,” Mrs. Enright says in an interview with The Washington Times. “To be so young and to be so brave as he was — it’s all about loving others more than yourself.”

She met Pfc. Austin’s family when her husband, a general contractor, did some work at the Austin house and they befriended his mother.

“In this part of the country, there are not only memorial services but parades,” Mrs. Enright says. “Veterans Day and Memorial Day are fairly big deals down here, but for some people it’s a barbecue.”

Lives intersect

Oscar Austin was a boy when his family moved to Arizona. He became a Marine machine-gunner in April 1968, almost a year after graduating from Phoenix Union High School.

He returned from Vietnam less than a year later in a casket, shredded by the grenade and bullets meant for Lance Cpl. Douglas C. Payne, his 5-foot-4, 120-pound sidekick.

“I was raised away up in the middle of nowhere. I never had any friends of another race or anything,” Mr. Payne says in an interview from his modest Tanglebob Ranch in Anza, Calif., near San Diego. “I was incredibly naive, and he was the first black man I’d ever met.”

Today Mr. Payne raises eight quarterhorses to race, and he named one Oscar. “If ever I had a son I was going to name him [Oscar], but I didn’t,” he says.

Oscar Austin’s mother, Mildred, moved back to Texas in 1980 and made part of her house in Sand Hill a shrine. It included her son’s Medal of Honor with distinctive blue ribbon and a large photo of him in Marine dress blues.

“We called the living room ‘the museum,’” says Pfc. Austin’s sister, Bobbie Garrett, now a retired teacher who lives in Houston. “Granny mourned my brother so much; she never got over it.”

Mrs. Garrett is grateful their mother lived long enough to attend the christening ceremony at the shipyard in Bath, Maine, on Nov. 7, 1998. “Granny” died 37 days after the USS Oscar Austin was launched.

Mr. Payne and Mrs. Garrett finally met two years later in Norfolk after the former Marine’s daughter wrote to a Web site honoring Vietnam veterans, www.thevirtualwall.org, to express gratitude for Pfc. Austin’s heroism.

“She said she wouldn’t even be there if he hadn’t saved me,” Mr. Payne recalls. “The prospective master chief of the USS Oscar Austin saw it and called her. I guess he was under the impression I was dead.”

That led to his being invited to the commissioning ceremony for the ship at Norfolk on Aug. 19, 2000.

Beforehand, Mr. Payne posted his own message to Oscar Austin on the Virtual Wall site.

“I am so proud they finally got around to honoring you my friend and I am so saddened even 30-plus years later that it is in death that you will be honored,” he wrote. “You gave your life for me my dear friend. It is a debt I can never repay in this life.”

Mr. Payne says he was apprehensive about meeting the Austin family in Norfolk.

“It was just real hard knowing they were going to be there. I could picture it that he was the one who lived, and I died. He was a great person and had so many plans.”

A belated meeting

Mr. Payne anticipated correctly that Mrs. Garrett had wondered whether he was alive — and whether his life was exemplary enough to justify her family’s loss.

“If he had not lived, it would all have been in vain,” Mrs. Garrett says. “And if he had lived and turned out to be a drug addict or in prison, I probably would have felt even worse than knowing he didn’t live.

“When I met up with him that is what I told him. And I said he might not have known how to find me, but you would have thought he would at least have found my mother.”

The meeting could have been scripted in Hollywood: Mr. Payne was studying a painting of Pfc. Austin on exhibit at the Navy pier. Thinking he was alone, he said aloud to himself, “That doesn’t look like Oscar.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t,” replied Mrs. Garrett, who had walked up behind him.

Then they embraced, the fallen Marine’s sister and the friend he had saved more than 30 years earlier.

Mrs. Garrett, having learned from others what Mr. Payne’s life was like, pronounces herself well satisfied. She says she is writing him a letter so he will rest easier.

“It gave me a good feeling to know that my brother lives on through him, and that my brother helped him to establish values in his own life,” she says.

It was not always so, Mr. Payne admits, particularly after he got back from Vietnam. “My life was kind of shaky, a shambles, I expect, but I found out I couldn’t drown it and drink it away,” he says.

‘What would Oscar do?’

With the help of a policeman friend, Mr. Payne turned things around, graduated from college and joined the Navy, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant. He completed 22 years of active and reserve duty, then became a vocational teacher in the California prison system.

“Is my life good?” he asks. “I think it is, yes. I was always saying to myself, ‘What would Oscar do?’ To me he seemed like a giant.”

Mr. Payne recalls that the two frequently violated orders by visiting an orphanage at Dai Loc in Quang Nam province, giving C-rations and peanut butter to the Vietnamese children and daydreaming about taking all 41 to the United States.

“Oscar and I were good Marines. We weren’t the best, but we were good,” a pensive Mr. Payne says.

He tells how his friend lived on through his own pre-release counseling of young criminals at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe, Calif.

“It often was misguided allegiance that put them there, and a high percentage of them are minorities and gangbangers who always talked about loyalty, so I turned that to Oscar,” Mr. Payne says, struggling for words at this point.

“I told them he would have been loyal to me if I did something wrong, but I know he would also have kicked my butt. And I told them that Oscar, in his loyalty, he gave me life and he gave my family life.”

The sense of responsibility often weighed on Mr. Payne.

“You can let the burden drive you into the ground or you figure there is a purpose that the person gave his life for you,” he says. “So I made a second life. I tried to do that.”

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