Three veterans, Larry Helms, John Croteau and Bill O'Connor stand in Commander Croteau's office Thursday at the VFW Post 1289 on Lee Hwy. Helms is senior vice commander, Croteau is the commander and O'Connor is junior vice commander of the post.

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Memorial Day: Local veterans' reflections

Former U.S. Marine Corpsman John Croteau is still alive only because he and his friend Pfc. Don Turner made a pact to not leave each other's bodies behind.

Croteau, 70, served in the Vietnam War from 1967-1969. And at just 18 years old, he was in Khe Sahn during the Tet Offensive.

"It was 90 days of pure hell," he said. "You didn't know when a rocket or a mortar or artillery would land on you. Sometimes you would be in one place, then you'd move to another, and the place [you were before], the people you were talking to, they would be blown away."

Memorial Day services

The National Cemetery Administration is hosting Memorial Day ceremonies at national cemeteries across the U.S., and the Chattanooga National Cemetery is among them.

A Memorial Day service will be held at Chattanooga National Cemetery, 1200 Bailey Ave., at 11 a.m. today.

The East Ridge ceremony will be held at Pioneer Frontier Park beside East Ridge City Hall at 1 p.m. today.

American Legion Post 95 in East Ridge organizes this event in partnership with city personnel and Crestwood Garden Club. Cmdr. Larry Palmer will emcee.

During the ceremony, the Lester Norton Award for Patriotism will be presented to an East Ridge citizen for patriotism.

At one point, Croteau and his friend, Warner — whose last name Croteau can't recall — had to go down one of the Cu Chi tunnels. The two came to an air shaft and stopped for a breath of fresh air, but when Warner started turning the corner, he tripped a line, detonating an explosive and causing the tunnel to collapse.

The blast killed Warner and left Croteau stuck in the already narrow tunnel, unable to move for nearly 26 hours.

Turner knew where Croteau was because he saw the dirt and dust from the blast shoot out of the tunnel's air vent, the once-trapped man said. But they had to wait until the next day because they were under heavy fire.

"They dug me out, but Warner was blown up," Croteau said.

Those are the people who should be remembered on Memorial Day, Croteau, who is also the commander at the VFW Post 1289, said. The ones who didn't make it home to their loved ones or get a chance to raise a family of their own, buy a new car, start a new job.

"This somber day is to honor our brothers and sisters who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country," he said. "Think about what these people would have been, had they not died for our service ... I want the people to realize they had dreams. And they gave up their dreams for our country."

Croteau said he didn't keep count of how many people he knew who were killed in action, but he held some of them in his arms as they took their last breath.

"I heard their last words," Croteau said, collecting his thoughts. "These are the words their parents or their loved ones should have heard."

One friend in particular sticks out in his memory: Bill Sheldon, a dog handler. The two were very close, and Croteau even kept in touch with Sheldon's sister for a time.

"We were on a patrol, and he got hit. But he was in a big clearing, and I couldn't get to him," Croteau said.

He couldn't run to be by Sheldon's side because it was too dangerous. The incoming fire was too intense, and he could have been hit, too.

"Every time I went to try, I just had to fall back. There was no way to get to him. That's bothered me for a long time ... That's one of the most frustrating moments I had — not being able to get to my friend, and he died," he said, reflecting on the painful memory.

Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day. It was established in 1868 by the head of the Grand Army Republic, an organization of Union veterans, as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers who fought in the Civil War, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' website.

It is believed May 30 was the chosen date because flowers would be in bloom all over the country, the website states. The first large observance was held that year at Arlington National Cemetery.

But the original meaning of Memorial Day has been lost, said medically disabled U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Bill O'Connor.

O'Connor, 51, who is the junior vice commander at the VFW Post 1289, said he thinks the day has become more of a celebration than a day of remembrance. It's an opportunity for people to have a good time and take a vacation.

Part of the reason for the cultural shift in the day's observance, he said, is because people shut out information they don't want to see. News of wars, death tolls, how many injured or taken prisoners of war. "It's either overwhelming or, to most people, confusing," he said.

"The shock hasn't hit home yet," O'Connor said of the war in Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries. " Most refuse to accept reality."

O'Connor, who has toured in many countries, including Korea, Japan, Norway and Germany as a field radio operator, was asked to teach the trade at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twenty- nine Palms, California, during his last four years of service.

Collectively, he said he knew hundreds who were killed in action, most of them his students.

"Can't remember names, but I remember faces," he said, visibly shaken. "... They went right from school to Baghdad."

Asked what it feels like to frequently learn that someone he knows isn't making it home, O'Connor said, "I never thought about that. That, or I blocked it out."

"Unfortunately, it's like a lottery draw. You never know," he said.

Croteau and former U.S. Navy Torpedoman's Mate Larry Helm, who both served during the Vietnam War, on the other hand, think observation of Memorial Day has gotten better in recent years.

Helm, 69, who is the senior vice commander at the VFW Post 1289, said the Vietnam War left a sour taste in people's mouths.

"They told us, 'When you leave base, don't wear your uniform,'" he said.

Croteau said he was waiting for a taxi after landing at the San Diego, California, airport.

"Some pretty little girl with a flower in her hair came up and threw a bag," he said. "It was filled with dog poop. ... All the Vietnam veterans were welcomed that way."

Croteau said he still hasn't gotten over the anger he felt upon returning, but he said he doesn't encounter that kind of treatment anymore.

"A lot of people come up and shake your hands and say, 'Thank you for your service,'" he said. "And that, to me, that's like having a cherry on a sundae."

But despite public support for the military increasing since the Vietnam War, all three veterans agree they want people to make more of an effort in honoring the fallen and respect what they fought for.

"Just drive by the national cemetery," Helm said. "That's all it takes. Just realize what people have given up."

"Be thankful for what you have and respect the sacrifices that have been made," O'Connor said. "Pay attention to what's going on in the world, 'cause it affects everybody. Regardless of who you are, where you are."

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at or 423-757-6327.

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