During the Vietnam War, 58,198 servicemen died. Retired Army Col. Tom Faley, of South Middleton Township, knew 24 of them personally.
So when VFW Post 8851 asked him to speak at the annual Memorial Day parade and picnic in Boiling Springs, Faley said he was “thrilled” to oblige.
“Every chance that I get as I move through life to honor them, I want to do that,” he said as he stood in the shadow of the Memorial Clock Tower on Sunday. “Because their memories are with me till the day I die.”
Forty-seven years ago, Faley was a 26-year-old Army captain leading his 150-strong paratroop company through the Mekong Delta Region when artillery fire ripped through Spc. 5th Class Gerald Levy, blowing off part of his leg. Levy, a 20-year-old medic from Meridan, Conn., still summoned the strength to tend to other wounded soldiers before dying on the battlefield, Faley said.
In the very same battle, Faley said, 19-year-old Spc. 4th Class George Eddie Geoghagen died after fragmentation wounds penetrated his skull.
“What made George’s death so untimely was that he had just joined our company the day before on New Year’s Day 1966,” Faley said. “And one day later, he died.”
Two and a half months later on March 14, 1966, Staff Sgt. Earl James Butler Jr. died instantly after claymore mines exploded inside the Viet Cong’s Military Region 7 Headquarters in War Zone D.
Faley described Butler as a 30-year-old husband from Jacksonville, Fla., who left behind a wife after 12 years of military service.
“He was a steady noncommissioned officer well-loved and respected by his men because they knew how he deeply cared for them,” Faley said. “As you can readily see ... I will carry vivid memories of them and their sacrifices with me until the day I die.”
After Faley finished his speech, members of VFW Post 8851, including Commander Scott Shirk, “coined” the retired colonel by giving him an honorable coin.
“It’s a tradition, an Army tradition,” Faley said. “It’s a means for the commander to recognize the soldier who’s done something unique. It’s become a norm in the last 20 to 30 years.”
Faley said he’s received the honor before and that the real gift is sharing the memory of his fellow soldiers. So far, he has spoken about 12 of the 24 publicly.
“These soldiers are far more than a statistic to me,” he said. “We will never know what their futures would have been, but we do know that they were — at the time of their deaths — true heroes in every sense of the word.”