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'I'll never forget the friends I lost in Vietnam': US congressman shares stories of war

Chairman Dr. Phil Roe penned this piece for Military Times.

I can still remember the look on Johnny Parham’s face when I passed him the baton during our 2-mile high school relay race. We were pretty good, if I do say so myself. Johnny was my friend. Even though it’s difficult for me to get through, I still tell his story because, even after all of these years, I often think of him. You don’t get to choose your war. 

My service as a member of the 2nd Infantry Division sent me to Korea, near the Demilitarized Zone in 1973 and on to Seoul at a 121 Evacuation Hospital, but Johnny’s sent him to Vietnam where he became one of 58,220 brave Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country during the Vietnam War. Johnny didn’t get to do what I did. He wasn’t able to go on to raise a family, practice medicine and run for Congress, because he was killed on March 18, 1969 in South Vietnam. 

John William Parham was a sergeant in the 1st Infantry Division, and his tour began just a little over two months before he was killed in combat. He was 24 years old when he died, and is honored at Panel 29W, Line 71 on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. 

Sergeant Major Tom Thayer was my Scoutmaster. He was a man of integrity, and – as is the case with most Scoutmasters – helped shaped me into the man I am today. Sarge, as I always called him, was born on Sept. 3, 1929 and served in the 101st Airborne Division as a sergeant major. He served his country for 16 years before he was killed on Nov. 8, 1965, exactly three months to the day after his tour began on July 8, 1965. Thomas Edward Thayer, Jr. was just 36 years old when he was killed. His service is honored at Panel 03E, Line 37. I’ve visited the memorial to pay my respects to Johnny and Serg, and I continue to honor their memory by telling their stories. I was lucky to personally know Johnny and Sarge, and I’ve carried their memories close to my heart for more than 50 years. We owe so much to these men, and to every man and woman who has served our great nation. 

The Vietnam War stretched nearly two decades and claimed the lives of some 58,220 Americans. Those of us who can vividly remember the late '60s remember how divided our country was because of the war. In 1973, President Nixon withdrew U.S. forces from the war, but for many, the wounds of Vietnam – both physical and invisible – will never fully heal. 

In the aftermath of Vietnam, I – like so many of you – experienced firsthand a nation that did not respect the sacrifice made by the soldiers who were asked or told to go to war. Those were dark days for our country, and the way our heroes were treated after the war still troubles me. I can think of no duty more important than to serve veterans. As long as I have the great honor of serving in Congress, especially during my time as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I will never allow our veterans to be treated with such disregard again. Still, as recent issues with the Department of Veterans Affairs have been brought to light, we have a lot of work to do to ensure the men and women who put on a uniform and serve this country are treated with the care and respect they have earned. 

It is truly a privilege to be given the opportunity to participate in this series fittingly called Never Forget: A Tribute to our Vietnam VeteransI’ll never forget the friends I lost in Vietnam, and I’ll continue to share their stories. It’s important to honor the memory of every man and woman who laid down their lives for our country. Too many Vietnam veterans didn’t receive the heroes’ welcome they deserved, but it’s never too late to do the right thing and pay them the respect they’re due. 

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13.
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