Each afternoon, Disney World in Orlando, Florida randomly selects a veteran from among its visitors to be guest of honor in a daily ceremony to lower the American flag and then to carry it in a parade down Main Street.
Earlier this year they saw a man with his family wearing a hat denoting him as a Vietnam veteran and asked him to be that guest of honor. His name is Bruce Bird and, in my opinion, they could not have selected a more deserving person.
Fifty-one years ago, on July 6, 1968, during the bitter fighting in the final hours before Khe Sanh Combat Base was abandoned, ending fifteen months of horrendous battle there, Bruce volunteered to risk his life to retrieve the body of my friend Tom Mahoney from under a North Vietnamese Army ambush. Bruce was a veteran of intense combat and so knew full-well the dangers he faced.
As he crawled within a few yards of Tom's body, Bruce was shot through the neck by an enemy sniper. As he lay in the tall grass watching the blood flowing out, he later said “It was like in the movies, with my life flashing before my eyes.” Just as he lost consciousness, platoon leader Lieutenant Frank Ahearn and another Marine pulled Bruce back to safety. A corpsman quickly bandaged his neck wound and managed to get him aboard the next medevac helicopter to a hospital in a rear area.That unusually rapid (and lucky) sequence of events resulted in Bruce’s life being saved.
A few years ago, I tracked Bruce down while I was researching and writing The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited, and he provided vital information.
So, its time to finally Stand Down, Marine. Your loyalty and courage echoed across the subsequent decades and in the end--as if somehow fated--you appeared at just the right moment to help ensure that the memory of Tom’s last days will not be left behind in the shadows of history.
If Disney World was looking for a real American hero to lower the flag, they certainly found one that day.