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Standing Where They Fell – A Very Different Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2018 will stand apart from all others, in my lifetime, because of a memory I now have that I had never possessed before.

 

That memory was created by standing on a plot of Vietnamese ground on March 31, 2018. The ground where my brother lost his life from a mortar round 50 years earlier to the minute.

 

That memory was created by standing on a plot of Vietnamese ground on March 31, 2018. The ground where my brother lost his life from a mortar round 50 years earlier to the minute. Those moments in life will change you. Let me tell you about it.

Mark Hodel

Mark Hodel, along with five other brave men, were part of the Seabee mortar team, defending their camp against the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in Phu Loc, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. They had first come under attack, at 2am, killing one American soldier before being repelled by our mortar team.  At 8am, the mortars began raining down once again, from the mountain the Seabees were quarrying for road building materials.

This time, the enemy was intent in taking out our American mortar squad and as the shells came closer to the mortar pit, reeling them in, that group of men never fled. Nobody would have blamed them if they had. They knew that each shell they fired might be the one to take out the enemy, as they had done in the earlier battle. They never left their post.  And then two direct hits ended five lives and critically injured a sixth. That was March 31, 1968 and I was 7 years old.

The Hodel Family

I remember returning home from second grade and walking onto our country home in Northern California. My normally cheerful mother had been replaced by a very somber one and as she guided me into the bedroom, went right to the point. That Mark would not be coming home. I fully absorbed it and it was devastating.  How could I have possibly known that fifty years later, I would be there?

Rick King was there that day in 1968 and a few years ago, reached out to the families of those who fell that day. He had been diagnosed with cancer, a result of agent orange, and realized he had had 50 years of life that these brave men never had the chance to experience. He was on a mission…to reach out to those families of those that died and share with them the bravery of their loved ones in the face of battle. He and I had dinner at a sushi restaurant along the Mission Viejo Lake in Southern California and after two hours of amazing conversation, he ended the evening telling me it was he who had put Mark’s body parts into the body bag.  The handshake ending that dinner was very different than the handshake that preceded it.

Rick decided to put together a trip to Vietnam and visit that spot fifty years to the day with as many family members of those fallen men that would want to go.  I decided against it as my brother and I had been there 16 years earlier, but our visit was cut short by nearly being arrested for trespassing.  I figured I didn’t need to do it again. But a week before they were to leave, my wife Anna gently told me I was crazy to not take this opportunity. Wives are so smart.

March 31, 2018 and here I was. On the hallowed ground where my brother fell, this time narrated by the man who saw it first-hand. The day after Good Friday, where I and Christians around the world recognized God’s sacrifice of His Son for mankind. In a spot where other sons had been sacrificed for one another. Joining me was Juanita, Ken and Laura – Sister, Brother and Daughter of Mark’s brothers-in-arms in that Mortar pit.

 

 

And then there was Thanh, who was our guide and the son of a Viet Cong soldier. The Viet Cong were men and women who lived in South Vietnam but who fought for the North. His dad was a gun runner and left his family for 14 years to fight against Americans. Thanh and I were both 7 years old in 1968, and just the day before, these two former 7 year old’s were exploring pitch black Viet Cong-built tunnels together. And today he was wearing a Stand For Vets tee shirt I had given him. Unbelievable.

 

Rick shared the details of the battle and pointed to where the shells were coming in, where the mortar pit was, and the frenetic activity taking place exactly 50 years ago at that moment.  We all shared something as we stood together on that plot of ground.  I read a letter from the widow of one of the fallen which was written to my mother. She had just given birth to their second child two weeks prematurely, and only because of that did he even know he had a daughter.  You find some comfort in those kinds of things I suppose.

 

How do you put all those emotions and feelings into words? You can’t. It’s an experience that transcends words. Every fallen man and woman, defending our country, had a story. They had family. They had dreams and I had a glimpse of a few of them.

 

How do you put all those emotions and feelings into words? You can’t. It’s an experience that transcends words. Every fallen man and woman, defending our country, had a story. They had family. They had dreams and I had a glimpse of a few of them.

 

 

 

John Hodel with his mom Mrs. Hodel flying a flag at Mark Hodel’s gravesite.

 

So this Memorial Day is different from all others and forever will be.  It has transformed my appreciation into a deeply found respect.  Seabees don’t normally fight, they build.  None of those men thought that would be their last day and now I was staring at the same mountain my brother last saw on this Earth…with the man who last held him. How do you process that?

 

Perhaps Jesus Himself said it best in John 15:13: “No greater love has one than this, but to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”.

That love was demonstrated on the morning of March 31, 1968. Let’s honor all those who have shown the ultimate love for their friends on the battlefield…for us…and for the United States of America.

 

BY: JOHN HODEL  /  Founder + President