Veterans honor lost comrades on Memorial Day
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS — Memorial Day for Thomas Korth is a rare time to drink.
He has his own ritual for the occasion. To prepare, he grabs a can of Budweiser — colored red, white and blue, like a U.S. flag — and writes the name of a serviceman on it. Then he grabs another can and writes a different name, with the same black marker, and keeps doing so until he has about a dozen.
During the long weekend, Korth, 28, goes off somewhere outdoors with the cooler of memorial beers. He reaches in, pulls one out, looks at the name on the can and opens it. As he sinks the beers over the weekend, he reflects on each person who didn't come home, including two who were killed in his Army convoy in Baghdad.
"This may sound corny, but when I draw one out and I've got that name on there, it's like I'm toasting them, drinking a beer for them," said Korth, of St. Charles. "With the ones I knew very well, I think about the times I had with them."
Memorial Day has long been a time to honor people who were killed serving in the U.S. military — those who died in places as far away as Kabul, Okinawa and Saigon, or as close as Gettysburg.
For many people, the holiday offers a chance to catch up on chores, run off to a lake or hold a barbecue. There's talk about gas prices as the day marks the start of summer vacations.
For veterans, the day tends to be different, more personal, especially for those who saw the sacrifices of war firsthand.
Korth was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he got home from his Iraq tour in 2005. He comes from a military family. Pictures of relatives in uniform hang in the "military room," a man cave in the basement of his suburban home. There's a shadow box with his own medals.
Last week in the room, Korth lined up six of the beers he plans to drink this weekend. The last names were already labeled.
"Carballo" was a 20-year-old soldier from Houston, killed by a rocket-propelled grenade. Korth didn't know him but said: "He was in my unit, that's reason enough to put the name on the can."
Then there were Bradley Kritzer, 18, and James Marshall, 19, both killed by an IED blast during a road clearing mission that Korth was on.
Pamela Osbourne is one of the cans that really makes him bawl. She also was in his unit and "was friends with everybody," Korth said.
He'd spoken to Osbourne, 38, the day before she was killed by a mortar at a military base. "She was gone, just walking to the shower," he said.
Michael Battles, 38, was the one who liked to joke around. Somebody drove by a checkpoint on a motorcycle and tossed a bomb.
Last in the line of beer cans was someone Korth didn't know: Phillip Vinnedge, 19, who joined the Marines after graduating from Francis Howell Central High School in 2009. He was killed in Afghanistan.
"The kid was only in country for about a week, a week and a half," said Korth. "I always drink one to him because he's a hero to me."
Korth, who is now studying public relations at Lindenwood University, started the beer ritual about four years ago because he couldn't visit graves that are scattered around the country. He drank heavily after his deployment but largely gave up alcohol and settled down with his new wife.
This year, he's not sure if he'll go camp with one of his dogs or just retreat to the backyard. Wherever he ends up, he said, he'll be outside. He said he'd reach into the cooler and think about why "God chooses the people he chooses."
He'll think about Richard McNulty III, of Rolla, Mo., killed just a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, whose widow is expecting a baby girl in June.
And he will think about how thankful he is that his own name isn't on a can.
Ronnie "Stray Dog" Hall looks so intimidating that a director picked him out of a crowd to play the minor but fearsome role of Thump Milton in "Winter's Bone," the award-winning movie about meth in rural Missouri. Hall has a shrapnel scar across the bridge of his nose. He sports a gray beard and a black leather vest covered in patches and medals, including a Purple Heart.
The tattoo on his left shoulder says "Vaya con Dios" ("Go with God") near the illustration of a memorial for a fallen soldier. On the other shoulder, a tattoo reads, "Never Forgive, Never Forget," referring to the Vietnam War.
Despite his appearance, Hall, 65, who owns At Ease RV Park in Branson, Mo., comes to tears easily when he talks about his past.
Last week, he and his wife joined "Run for the Wall," a procession of hundreds of motorcycles, in Wentzville for the annual cross-country ride to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. Hall was ready on a red, white and blue Harley-Davidson, with "POW/MIA" printed on the gas cap.
People cheer on the riders, many of whom start in California in the days leading to Memorial Day, from overpasses across the country. Hall said the trek was like therapy.
"A lot of healing goes on," he said.
Hall grew up in Portageville, in southeastern Missouri, and traveled as a migrant farm worker before joining the Army in 1963 because, he said, "I wanted out of the cotton fields" and "I couldn't wait to be a man."
He did two tours in Vietnam and spent 11 years in Korea because, he said, people there were thankful for his service. The reception back home was rough. A woman in California once called him a baby killer. People used to spit on vets.
But ever since Sept. 11, 2001, he said, the U.S. has become more welcoming.
"It's kind of nice to be appreciated," he said.
For years, Hall struggled with memories that he tried to keep buried. Then in 1996, he visited a traveling memorial wall and saw the names of men he served with. He said he cried so hard that somebody called an ambulance.
After the breakthrough, he said, he started "digging up bones" from his past in Vietnam. He tracked down the family of one of his squad leaders, originally from Mexico.
"The boy died doing his job, and he died heroically," Hall said. "He didn't have to be there."
It was during a visit to Mexico that Hall met his future wife. Her name is Martha Alicia Hall, and they've been married for two years.
She's ridden on the back of Hall's Harley all the way to the wall in Washington two times. He's done it six times.
"I do it to support him," said Alicia, 42, smiling.
This year's trip was cut short in Mount Vernon, Ill., when their bike broke down. They plan on trying again next year.
"We ride for those who can't," Hall said.
Following in footsteps
Vincent Winston Sr., an Army veteran and the father of a fallen soldier, has no special plans for Memorial Day.
But he doesn't have to go far to look for ways to remember his son. The belongings of Army Pvt. Vincent C. Winston Jr., 22, who was killed four years ago in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, are spread throughout his father's living room in a two-family flat in north St. Louis.
A helmet rests above a large cabinet filled with personal items.
"This is his leg or a part of his arm," said his father, pointing to a box of cremated remains. "I'm not sure."
There's a camouflage wallet, razor, domino set and Bronze Star. A folded U.S. flag and a note from President George W. Bush are on display: "This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States."
Winston Jr. grew up in Jennings. His parents were young when he was born and eventually separated. As a young boy, he moved to Memphis, Tenn., to live with his grandmother for several years before coming back to St. Louis. He earned a GED and studied welding as a live-in resident at Job Corps, near Goodfellow Boulevard and Interstate 70. He then enlisted in the Army.
"He was following in my footsteps," said Winston Sr., 46, who joined the Army in 1989 to support his family.
He said his son was a "very patriotic" and "gung ho" grunt in the military. He liked to read and enjoyed a good party. A stack of photos with his belongings show Winston Jr. living it up in a hotel with Army pals, drinking from a large beer bong.
The last time Winston Sr. saw his son was when they went to Applebee's for dinner. They picked up beer on the way home and watched the movie "Full Metal Jacket." His son loved the war movie. Three months later, an Army chaplain showed up to deliver the bad news.
Winston Jr. was laid to rest at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
"The military did a nice going-away for him," the father said. "They really did."
Winston Sr. said he went to Jefferson Barracks to see his son's grave a few times a year. The white stone, which is high on a hillside, reads: "Beloved Son and Grandson."
Winston's grave is immediately flanked by veterans who served in World War II, Korea and Afghanistan.
Winston Sr. doesn't plan on going to the cemetery this weekend. And while other people will gather for ceremonies on Monday, he has to work. He's one of the people downtown with a friendly face and a purple T-shirt who clean sidewalks with a broom and dustpan.
Winston Sr. is fine with having a routine, low-key day. He has found his own way to honor his son. He had two teardrops tattooed below his right eye. Every time he looks in the mirror, he can see them.
"I am proud of him, I really am," Winston Sr. said. "I commend all soldiers willing to put their life on the line for someone other than themselves. ... This is the land of the free because of the soldiers of the past."