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A Tribute to the Real Survivors: our Veterans

The Real Survivors
By: Lieutenant Colonel James G. Zumwalt (USMCR, Retired)

As one reads through the list of combat medals: three Purple Hearts, three Silver stars and four Bronze Stars, one wonders how a single Marine could have seen so much action and managed to survive. But, through two wars, Korea and Vietnam, Sergeant Major Louis Rountree has proven to be a survivor.

In Korea, Rountree found himself out numbered at the Chosin Reservoir. Cut off form any escape route, his regiment, commanded by Marine legend (then) Colonel "Chesty" Puller, was surrounded by eight North Korean divisions. Breaking out of the encirclement, carrying their dead and wounded with them, the regiment fought its way back forty miles to friendly lines.

One would have thought his Korea experience would have been enough excitement for this gung-ho Marine, but Rountree wanted to serve again. In Vietnam, as an advisor to South Vietnamese army during the early days of the war, his unit was wiped out. Rountree escaped into the jungle where he evaded North Vietnamese forces. Friendly reinforcements arrived to recover the dead. Initially listed as a KIA, when a body count came up one short, his status was changed to MIA. Days later, he emerged from the jungle alive and well.

During a career that spanned four decades, Sergeant Major Rountree experienced both the highs and lows of military service. The "highs" included his service to country; the "lows" the loss of friends and comrades who served with him on Hell's battlefields. Through it all, Rountree was true to his country, true to his Corps, and true to himself.

Today, Rountree continues to demonstrate he is a survivor, but on a much different battlefield. Living in a VA hospital, he receives medical attention for a profusion of life-threatening health problems. Considering his personal achievements, this tough, combat-hardened Marine seems out of place confined to his bed and wheelchair. Time seems to be accomplishing what no enemy soldier ever could.

To his credit though, time has proven incapable of diminishing Rountree's fighting spirit and zest for life. This became apparent to me during a personal visit with him last month. Compassion in Action's Chairman Dannion Brinkley led a fire team of visitors to see the Sergeant Major at the Washington, DC VA Medical Center. Rountree greeted us with a smile that lit up the room. As Dannion and I shared that we too were former Marines, an immediate bond formed among us.

Other visitors included my mother, recently widowed by the passing of my father, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. The visit brought back memories of time she spent in military hospitals during the Vietnam war thanking our young men for their sacrifices and encouraging them to get well. This visit was different though, for veterans such as Rountree would not be going home.

Despite the camaraderie that ensues whenever former Marines get together, Rountree clearly wanted to spend time with the ladies in our group, so they escorted him to the recreation center. Dannion and I followed in trace.

As we reached the recreation room, veterans Morris Moore, Joseph Thomas, Jr. and Benjamin Saunders, sat aimlessly watching TV. Dannion immediately sprang into action. He began moving wheelchairs around and engaging the veterans in conversation. Everything happened so fast it must have been reminiscent to them of their first firefight. Appearing to quickly recovering from shill shock, they began sharing stories, telling jokes and recalling memories. Smiles replaced blank stares as laughter was heard throughout the center.

In his own dynamic way, Dannion clearly sent an important message to these four veterans. He told them, "We have not forgotten you. We still remember the sacrifices you made on our behalf. We love you."

In a serious moment, Dannion asked each man what message he would want to convey to Americans. Upon reflection, each spoke of patriotism, teamwork, and about doing what was right for America. "What humility and selflessness," I thought to myself, "that men receiving so little attention and love in the twilight of life would respond only positively about their country and their military service."

As it came time to depart, we hugged each man. I felt a mix of emotions–jubilation over making four special, new friends yet immense sadness at having to leave them to face the future and, perhaps, the end of life alone.

One veteran, missing both legs, looked up as we started to leave and said, "You've made my heart glad today." His comment left me searching for a response that never came. Not until later did I realize there was but one appropriate response to give. "No, sir, it is you who made my heart glad today."

Author's Note:
For two days last month, I accompanied Dannion as he walked the halls of Congress promoting, Compassion in Action and the need to care for our dying veterans. No sooner had we completed our second day on the Hill when Dannion raced us off to visit veterans at the VA hospital. That done, we went to tape an interview with the Learning Channel in which Dannion emphasized that America is losing 44,000 World War II veterans a month– many of whom will not receive the care and medical attention they deserve for lack of funding. I learned one thing by Dannion's examplethere are enough hours in the day to volunteer time to CIA. We all need to recognize the importance of committing ourselves to finding that time rather than making excuses for why we cannot. A smile on the face of a lonely veteran makes it all worthwhile.


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