Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All is not fun and games!

I watched the sad events of the Cody Baker funeral unfold last week from a distance. He was killed August 3 in Warduk province in east central Afghanistan. I didn’t know the young man and he didn’t know me, but I felt the grief his family was experiencing, and all of it brought back a flood of memories for me. There was a young man, almost the same age as Cody Baker, named Martin Jim, Jr. who died in Vietnam in 1971 and by anybody’s calculations that was a long time ago.

They both were young, both died from explosives, one in Vietnam and the other in Afghanistan, thousands of miles from the streets of Holton, Kansas and the reservation of the Potawatomis. I don’t remember anybody else dying from war during this span of 1971 to the present time. I could be wrong though. Hopefully, it will be another 40 years before it happens again.

Allow me to tell you about my time with Martin Jim. Martin grew up on the Prairie Band of Potawatomi Reservation. We knew each other as we grew up, but for the most part we attended different schools until high school where we became the best of friends. He was like a brother to me. Later I named my daughter after him. After school and before, some of the guys from the reservation joined the service and usually ended up in Vietnam. It was called a conflict. In our circle of friends, my brother Larry joined the Army, Vernon Yazzie joined the Marines and Martin Jim joined the Army. They spent their senior trips in Vietnam. All of these guys, along with several other veterans from that conflict, are gone now.

It wasn’t a good story to tell: After eight days in Vietnam, Martin Jim was killed by a booby trap. Many years later, a man from Missouri came to the reservation and told of the circumstances of Martin Jim's death. Jim Jenkins, who lives in Missouri now, served in the same unit. He said Martin was sent out on point, and Jenkins said this usually didn't happen with new soldiers. And there were booby traps set by the Americans, and Martin walked into one of these. Jim Jenkins was walking three men back, and the bomb killed Martin Jim and badly wounded the man in front of him. These same circumstances happened to another unit close by. It was a deadly accident of war, but that was little consolation to his friends and family.

In 2009, a man named Don Lowell told about his experience with Martin Jim. He said: “Martin was truly an Airborne Infantry Soldier! I knew that Martin was a special warrior when I first met him. Martin had no fear. Martin was willing to do what he believed was right and honorable, with no concern or respect for his own well being. Vietnam was a tough place. Those of us that survived were very fortunate and we never forgot and never will forget those who willingly paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom we enjoy in this Nation. There is a quote that I once heard. I don't know the author. However, it says "For those who have fought for it, Freedom has a taste the protected will never know".”

Life does have some strange twists as evidenced by Jim Jenkins and Don Lovell walking into the lives of the Potawatomi many years after the death of Martin Jim and telling some of the story.

Cody Baker died the same way, but the bombs were set by the enemy. I imagine Cody Baker was much the same as these guys. They wanted to get out and see the world and for a short time they did get to experience a different life, but in the case of Cody Baker and Martin Jim they will never get to experience the trial and tribulations or joy of children, and grandchildren or grow old, but if it’s any consolation, they also won’t have to live and relive the war experience over and over, as many combat veterans have done. Sadly, war does have consequences and after-affects.

I’m sure the funeral, the grief and all the events were just a blur for the family because that’s the way it was when Martin Jim died. It made me feel good to see the recognition Cody Baker received from the community and all the good words from his friends and family - all of that is well deserved. An anonymous author once wrote that people will always live if you remember them.

As I said the family didn’t know me. I wanted to go to the funeral home and sign the book, but sometimes it’s better for guys like me to remain in the background, because we know that words in times like this will never suffice!

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