Medal of Honor recipient shares war experiences to unite veterans, promote core values
By JACK “MILES” VENTIMIGLIA | The Daily Star-Journal, Warrensburg, Mo. | Published: May 18, 2017
HOLDEN, Mo. (Tribune News Service) — Nearly 50 years after a grenade tossed by a North Vietnamese soldier bounced off his helmet and into the midst of wounded Marines, former Navy corpsman Don Ballard knows how to smile.
With U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler standing nearby, he got the crowd of about 200 going with remarks about politicians. At the Third Annual Camp Valor Outdoors Patriot Ride and Silent Auction, Ballard started by saying those who join the military take an oath against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
“You know who the domestic enemies are? They’re the politicians,” he said.
Several people in the crowd laughed.
One person shouted, “Not all of them.”
Ballard offered a hint of a smile.
“No, all of them,” he said. “Until they see it our way, until they come up and say, ‘Hey, look, I’m on your side,’ unless they come to our events and support us, they’re nothing but politicians. We’ve got some great ones here today that have stood up.”
A three-time Vietnam War Purple Heart recipient, Ballard visited Holden to speak for Camp Valor and for veterans. He first rose to prominence for receiving the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry” displayed after a grenade bounced off of his helmet. He threw himself on the grenade to save wounded Marines. He lived only because he got lucky; he tossed away the hand-held bomb, which exploded harmlessly moments later.
Before addressing the crowd, Ballard spoke privately, not about what he did in 1968, but about what followed.
Ballard started with praise for John Schwent, founder of Camp Valor Outdoors. The camp gives wounded veterans and their families the opportunity to participate in outdoor activities – such as hunting, fishing, wildlife photography and roaming along trails.
“What’s important is awareness that veterans do have needs and somebody should be there to support them,” Ballard said.
Uniting vets to support each other as they did for Camp Valor is important, he said.
“This is also a gathering for veterans to unite in a common bond and renew old acquaintances, and share stories – not war stories so much as quality-of-life stories.”
Ballard said Vietnam vets are aging and challenges are behind most of them.
“Now we share our stories with the idea that we can help the youth, the new veterans.”
Vietnam vets worked to assure veterans in wars that followed did not suffer as Nam’s vets suffered, Ballard said. In the 1960s and 1970s, no one wanted to acknowledge having serving in the nation’s most unsupported war.
“We were not allowed to wear our uniform off base. We were spit on and had cups of urine thrown on us, and feces.” How did he deal with that? “I didn’t, so well.”
The situation is different now for returning troops because of those who served in Vietnam, Ballard said.
“We rallied in saying we’re not going to let this happen to the new kids. We made a conscious effort to change opinions.”
Ballard said that when he saw returning troops, he and friends recognized them.
“The movement caught on so that every time a unit would come through the airport, whether it was one person or 20 people, if they were in uniform, we would start clapping and cheering, and letting them know that we appreciate them, and it caught on,” he said. “The pendulum swings in both directions and today it’s swinging pro-military, and it’s all because of the Vietnam vets that didn’t want (protests) to happen to their kids.”
Ballard spoke while sitting at a table in Holden, boyhood home to World War I Medal of Honor recipient John L. Barkley. While former REO Speedwagon rocker Steve Scorfina played guitar and sang with the group, Oxline Road, Ballard said he is Missouri’s only living Medal of Honor recipient, the state’s first recipient from Vietnam and the nation’s only Vietnam War corpsman to receive the medal. The medal comes with responsibility, he said.
“My attitude has always been I want to be remembered for what I’ve done since I came home from combat instead of that one day in combat,” Ballard, 71, said. “(The medal) is a constant reminder of a lot of guys I didn’t save. So I’ve got the survivor’s guilt, my nightmares, and my PTSD at the time was … about the fact that these guys died in my arms, and crying for their mothers or… It was a terrible experience. I still have trouble with it today.”
Ballard said he took the initiative to control what troubles him.
“The better decisions we make the better life we’ll have.”
Today, Ballard said, he wants people to associate his name with service to veterans. After the Navy, Ballard joined the Army, retired as a colonel at age 60, then went to school to become a funeral director.
“I provide as close to free funerals as I can for all veterans – certainly for the ones that they find under the bridges and places like that. I want to be remembered as the guy that’s still serving veterans, still serving the country.”
Another obligation is to encourage youth to join the military, to be part of the nation’s heritage going back to the Founding Fathers, Ballard said, instead of following the easy path into drugs and other diversions.
“We’re trying to get back to the core values of patriotism, Americanism. Most of the veterans here today are all about understanding that we paid the price. We accept that it was our duty to pay that price.”
Ballard said veterans recognize not everybody could serve in the military.
“But … if you couldn’t serve in the military, it’s time to serve the military, and remember you have choices because the veterans gave you those choices. I thank all of the World War II guys for not having to speak Japanese. … If you can read, thank a teacher, but if you can read English, thank a veteran.”
©2017 The Daily Star-Journal (Warrensburg, Mo.)
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