Atop Frank Damph's head was a 101st Airborne cap. Embroidered in gold script below the Airborne logo was "Screaming Eagles."
Said Damph on Sunday afternoon as he stood atop the highest hill at the Chattanooga National Cemetery: "I never jumped out of a plane, but during Vietnam they needed warm bodies and I was a warm body."
Seventy years young, the Glastonbury, Connecticut, native moved to the Scenic City a couple of years ago after a 35-year career in law enforcement in the Constitution State.
"The South, as they say, is very friendly," offered Damph, who also moved here because his son Nathan — who graduated from Tennessee-Knoxville — now lives just up the road in Cleveland, Tennessee.
"I sent my son and a lot of my money to UT, and he never came back," he said with a chuckle.
But Damph came to the cemetery on Sunday to honor a lot of brave men and women who never came back to their families after giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
"I thought I'd straighten some of the flags," he said of small American flags that were placed next to the thousands of simple white headstones by more than 2,000 Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts on Saturday morning at the start of Memorial Day weekend.
"Plus, I'm a bit of a history nut. I like to come here sometimes, just walk around. I feel a kinship to these soldiers, going all the way back to the Civil War. In some ways, what we went through in the jungles of Vietnam wasn't as bad as what they endured in the Civil War. Most of the time all they had to eat was crackers and salt pork. You ever tried salt pork? It's not very good. Our rations really weren't all that bad compared to that."
Well, not most of the time. There were, however, those 10 days in the winter of 1969 that his platoon was confined to a bunker near Long Bien due to a fierce firefight. Bathroom facilities were non-existent, the food was awful, the conditions about as bad as they could get.
But after briefly nodding off one day, Damph was shocked to find four-star general Creighton Abrams standing in front of him in the bunker.facebook
"He looked at me and said, 'Go lay down, buddy,'" recalled Damph. "When he learned of our food situation, we had steak that night. The power of a general."
That didn't mean he wanted to remain in the U.S. Army forever, even if he's understandably proud that his platoon — "Echo Recon Company, first of 506: Hurrah!" — never suffered a casualty during his time there. Damph can even tell you exactly how long he served his country: "Two years, seven months, one day, 15 hours and 22 minutes."
Sadly, like far too many other Vietnam vets, he also came home to find a civilian population far less supportive of its military personnel than it had been at any other time in our nation's history.
"Everybody ignored me," he said. "If you told them you'd been to Vietnam, they always had a plane to catch, or somewhere else they needed to be. They didn't want to hear about it. I try to avoid thinking about it. But it is what it is."
Yet Damph harbors no outward bitterness for that troubling time. Instead, he says, "I think because of Afghanistan and Iraq, the country looks up to all our vets now. This country's evolving. It's getting better."
Asked how he thinks most veterans wished their country would view them, he said, "I think most of us just want respect. We want you to know that we had a job to do and that we did that job to the best of our ability."
Damph expects his job today to mirror how so many of the rest of us will spend this Memorial Day. He plans to hang out with his son's family, enjoy his grandkids and chow down on some really good Southern barbecue.
But whatever we do, he hopes we won't forget the real reason for this holiday.
"Memorial Day is to honor the most important people who've ever lived in this country," he said. "The people who gave their lives for our freedom."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.