Realizing that Memorial Day is Monday, May 30, brought back memories of my own days in uniform.
Some decades ago when I still in the Air Force, I wrote a magazine story about a young airman killed in Vietnam in 1969. Norman Thomas was one of the more than 58,000 Americans killed there. But Vietnam wasn’t a movie. He didn’t die in a blaze of glory; he died in a hail of shrapnel on an anonymous Southeast Asia flight line.
Norman was of my generation; the Vietnam generation. I chose him to write about because, in a sense, he was nothing special, unless all who died in combat are special. He was just one of us; baby boomers caught up in a war that no one there understood and few back home cared about. He wasn’t a hero, unless all who served and died are heroes. I wrote about Norman for precisely that reason.
While writing the story, I learned that Norman is more than a distant memory and a name chiseled on the granite walls of the Vietnam Memorial.
It took me months to research and write the story. I traveled to five states to interview his parents, his widow and his daughter. I spoke at some length with childhood friends, relatives, a teacher and a burly high school wrestling coach who remembered him fondly with a tear in his eye. I even talked to his barber. The day before Norman left for the Air Force, he asked for a buzz cut so he wouldn’t stand out in basic training. He could have saved two bits because an Air Force barber gave him a free haircut the next day, whether he needed one or not.
I also learned that Norman was an ordinary young man with simple aspirations. He wanted to serve his country for four years and then return home to his wife and daughter. “Norm was a product of a broken home,” his widow told me some 15 years after his death. “All he really wanted was a real home and a family to call his own.”
That wasn’t meant to be. Just a few weeks after his 21st birthday, an enemy rocket destroyed Norman’s C-130 Hercules while it was taxiing on a runway in Quang Loi, a tiny village in South Vietnam’s Binh Long Province.
At that moment, Norman Thomas ceased to be. His is a sad story; a tender story. It’s also a story that’s been repeated countless thousands of times over the years by so many other Americans who died while wearing the uniform.
On this Memorial Day, let’s pause and remember all those who died defending our country.
And let’s remember Norman.