Friday, May 27, 2011

Salute to a fallen hero

Tom Shepherd grew up two blocks from me on a street that resembled the ski jump at Lake Placid.  As kids we'd walk our bikes to the top of this launching pad because peddling up this gigantic slope was impossible.  Once on top of Orchard Street, we'd free wheel it down this precipice - probably reaching speeds faster than our dads drove their old clunkers - and slam on the braks just before hitting Main Street at the bottom.  The thrilling speed and dangerous climax gave us highs one never attained from drugs.  Our hometown had many steep streets, but this one was great because it lacked curves.

When we turned eight, Tom and I became charter members of our Midget League team, the Dodgers, and Tom's dad coached us weenies.  The village just completed building the ballpark over a large lot that once housed a coal dump and before every practice or game, all the kids had to scour the field for chunks of coal to throw over the fence.  At the age of eight, many of the kids couldn't reach the fence.  The Dodgers never clinched the championship during our four-year stretch, but we won our share of contests, and more importantly, we had fun.  Murray, Tom's dad, made sure of that.  I came to respect the man and in later life realized the value of many of his lessons.

Tom and his younger brother, Joe, remained casual friends through the teen years, but I lost track of Tom after high school.  When I wheeled back into town for our fiftieth class reunion, I asked about Tom at the Saturday night dinner.  The girl I questioned led me to a display table with the names of deceased classmates.  I was shocked at the number - over thirty.  Then I saw a special exhibit about Thomas Christ Shepherd, Sr.  I recognized his picture immediately because he looked like the same friend and classmate I knew for so many years.  He had the same boyish face and devilish grin, but this time he wore an Army uniform decorated with a chest full of medals.

Tom was killed in South Viet Nam during his second tour of duty.  In reading the tribute, I noted he reached the rank of Sergeant First Class.  Imagining my playful friend as a tough combat-hardened sergeant directing young men in war was difficult.

His first tour in Vietnam was served with the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong River Delta.  Tom was the recipient of the Silver Star for bravery after he successfully rescued General William Westmoreland's son-in-law at Khe Sahn, Vietnam.  The Silver Star is awarded for valor in the face of the enemy.  It's the 3rd highest decoration of the armed services awarded for heroism.

Among Tom's other awards were the Paratrooper badge as well as the Gallantry Cross, Order of Gallantry. The Paratrooper Badge is worn by parachute-trained soldiers that are dropped to the battlefield from the air allowing them to be positioned in areas not accessible by land - a forced entry technique used to enter the theater of war. The Gallantry Cross, Order of Gallantry, is awarded for going above and beyond the call of duty for valor in combat.

My childhood friend who used to races bikes down Orchard Street - my teenage friend who raced cars down Main Street - now a fallen hero.  I sat in my wheelchair awhile recalling various images of Tom.  My classmate, recognizing my need for privacy, slowly moved away.  Remaining a few minutes longer,  making sure no one saw me, I gave Tom and all those who gave their ultimate for this country a heartfelt salute.  Tom, I salute you and thank you.

*     *     *

This Memorial Day you may want to join me in sending a care package to a soldier overseas. It only costs $25 to send one courtesy of the USO. Each package is filled with useful items like lip balm, toothpaste, shampoo and playing cards...and sometimes a nonperishable treat that's hard to come by in Iraq and Afghanistan--chewing gum. For more information, follow this link to www.uso.org.

No comments:

Post a Comment