The long journey home

Nothing can tap into my emotions quite like hearing “Taps” played at the end of a ceremony.

I distinctly remember it from the funeral of my wife’s grandfather. A veteran of World War II and Korea, his service followed all of the military protocols, including a 21-gun salute followed by “Taps.” It is a somber reminder of a day ending, especially in a metaphoric sense.

Standing in the packed gymnasium at Historic Washington State Park this weekend, I was reminded of the meaning at the end of a memorial service for First Sergeant Jim Holt.

Holt was a 26-year-old first sergeant with the Army 5th Special Forces group in the winter of 1968. He was a medic, part of the Lang Vei Special Forces camp near the Laotian border. The camp was in an increasingly hostile area, as it was slowly being encroached upon by Vietnamese forces that had encircled Khe Sanh. The camp came under attack in the early hours of February 7, 1968.

The fighting was fierce, and was the first time that North Vietnamese soldiers used Russian tanks. Eyewitnesses said that Holt singlehandedly took out two tanks using a 106mm recoilless rifle, followed by a third as reinforcements made their way around the wreckage. He and a fellow soldier barely escaped their position after destroying that tank when the enemy returned fire.

After emptying their weapons, the soldiers resorted to the use of light anti-tank weapons as more tanks entered their camp followed by infantry forces. In the chaos, Holt was last seen returning to the ammunition bunker for more anti-tank weapons. He was never to be seen again.

Holt’s story has been in my life for quite some time since then. He was my mother-in-law’s cousin, and Crystal’s brother, who was named to honor Holt, and one of her sisters have for years worn bracelets in honor of Holt’s missing in action status.

Following the war, life moved on, although his family still hoped to return Holt to his native soil. His parents and several siblings died not having the knowledge that he had returned home.

Then, just last month, the word they had hoped for finally came – Holt’s remains had been identified.

On the anniversary of that fight, family, friends and veterans of the war came to pay their final respects during the memorial service in that small gym. The bracelets worn in honor of Holt were collected during the ceremony, then presented to Sgt. Holt’s brother George. Alfred Arellano, who was stationed with Holt in Germany and Italy, said his bracelet had to be “pried off his arm.”

Arellano spoke about Holt, telling the typical exploits of a couple of young soldiers, but spoke in such a way that belied a deeper bond. “My buddy’s home,” he tearfully said to end his remarks. He then paused to salute. “Welcome home, buddy.”

The blast of a 21-gun salute jarred us, which was followed by the playing of “Taps.”

Coming from a family that does not have a history of military service, I sometimes struggle with the display of patriotism that surrounds these events. However, the idea of an individual sacrificing his or her life for something bigger than themselves is not lost on me at these times. And, as the last notes trailed from the bugle, I felt that tug.

It was an honor to be there.

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