Vietnam veteran speaks at Medal of Honor dinnerWritten by Danielle Stanton | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Army Sgt. Gary Beikirch, a Vietnam veteran, needed a few moments to calm his emotions after listening to an account of his Medal of Honor citation read at a recent event where he was the keynote speaker.
“Ignoring his own serious medical injuries, Sgt. Beikirch left the relative safety of the medical bunker to search for and evacuate other men who had been injured,” the citation reads. “He was again wounded as he dragged a critically injured Vietnamese soldier to the medical bunker. … Sgt. Beikirch again refused treatment and continued his search for other casualties until he collapsed.”
“When I hear the citation read, it takes me a few minutes to get it together,” Beikirch said after taking the podium Nov. 3 at silent auction and dinner held at the University of Toledo Medical Center hotel. “I still hear explosions. I still hear screams.”
The event, which drew about 80 people, honored veterans and the 18 Medal of Honor recipients from Lucas County. Organizer Nick Haupricht said the third annual dinner raised about $2,400 for Remembrance Inc., a local group that builds and refurbishes military memorials.
“I want [veterans] to know that when they come home, we are there for them,” said Haupricht, a Vietnam veteran, who has researched and gathered information on the Lucas County Medal of Honor recipients for a stainless steel plaque that was unveiled after Beikirch’s speech.
Beikirch, who served as a medic, said his Medal of Honor citation contains errors. For example, it mentions New Buffalo, N.Y.; however, he has no association with that city. The citation also reads that he had “complete disregard for his personal safety.”
That is not correct either, he said. In his fight at Camp Dak Seang in Vietnam for which he won the Medal of Honor, he said he had much to fear.
“I don’t know who wrote that, but they weren’t there. There was a lot of hesitating,” he said.
Beikirch took shrapnel while trying to treat the wounded in a hail of gunfire. The shrapnel hit his spine and partially paralyzed him. Despite the severe wound, he carried a wounded man to a medic station and then continued to evacuate other wounded soldiers.
“I got hit with shrapnel from a rocket,” he said. “I was thrown 25 feet in the air.”
He credits a 15-year-old boy, whom he called his “body guard,” for saving his life. The boy, his Montagnard assistant, carried him and protected him with his body. Both Beikirch and the boy took two more bullets before the boy threw himself on top of Beikirch and was killed.
“A 15-year-old boy showed me what it was like to love someone [beyond yourself],” he said.
The boy’s selflessness touched Beikirch. He went on to teach young people about their “own greatness,” he said. He has spent the past 33 years as a guidance counselor at a middle school in his native Rochester, N.Y.
Beikirch said he builds his students’ character through teachings on sacrifice, patriotism and caring about others before yourself, all things he learned from his experiences in the Army.
“I’ve invested 33 years in young people. … They’re the future of our country,” he said. “They’re our next leaders.”
After returning to the U.S., the name-calling and spitting directed toward Vietnam veterans at a college campus caused him to retreat into a “cave” in Northern New Hampshire. He spent two years there, healing, he said, and searching for a meaning to life and to his experience in Vietnam.
“I was looking for something. Security. Safety,” he said. “I needed to rebuild, refocus, get life in order. I was wrestling with putting meaning back into life.”
That’s when Washington, D.C., called about the Medal of Honor. The military bestows it for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.”
“I just spent two years trying to forget Vietnam. And now they’re going to give me a medal?” he thought at the time. “I don’t need a medal. I don’t deserve a medal.”
But Beikirch said he cut his long hair and traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1973, where he was presented the Medal of Honor by President Richard Nixon.
He then struggled with finding a meaning to the medal.
“This medal is not about me. I did nothing more than what I was trained to do,” he said. “We did our duty. The honor that comes with it is much greater than any one act by any person.”
The medal belongs to all service men and women, he said, who say goodbye to their families to face possible death, who serve their country and who make sacrifices.
“I’ve come to understand that the Medal of Honor comes to symbolize what lives in the heart,” he said. “When you wear this Medal of Honor, you wear it to honor the acts of others and to honor God.”
He told those assembled, many veterans in uniform, not to give up searching for a meaning to their war experience.
“I’ve spent 40 years trying to figure out what life means to me,” he said. “We as a country, we as a community, need to be behind the men and women who fight for us.”
After his speech, Beikirch was presented with a plaque from the City of Toledo, recognizing the importance of service to the community.