Honoring Three Fallen Heroes – After 43 Years

Soldiers from the Army’s Old Guard carry the flag-draped casket of three fallen Vietnam War soldiers to their final rest.

On August 30, 2012, William T. Brown, Donald M. Shue, and Gunther H.Wald, three army sergeants first class, who have been missing since November 5, 1969, when their patrol was attacked and overrun in Laos, near the Vietnamese border by a numerically superior enemy force, were laid to rest in a heroes’ ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC.

The three men were Special Forces soldiers assigned to the Military Assistance Command Vietnam’s super secret Studies and Observation Group, known as MACV-SOG, a unit that was responsible for reconnaissance behind North Vietnamese lines.  Experienced recon soldiers, they were veterans of many such patrols, accompanied by nine ethnic minority Montagnard tribesmen. Only six of the Montagnards survived the attack.  The survivors, when recovered, said that the last they saw of the three Americans, they were lying on the ground, gravely wounded; Brown, who was a staff sergeant at the time had been shot in the side, and the other two, Staff Sergeant Wald and Specialist Fourth Class Shue, had been seriously wounded by grenade fragments.

Inclement weather and heavy enemy activity in the area made it impossible made it impossible for US forces to enter the area to search for the missing men until November 11.  During the patrol, gear belonging to Shue, the team’s radio operator, was found, but there were no traces of the men.  Throughout the rest of the Vietnam War, the men were listed as missing in action (MIA), but the search to determine their fate continued.  At the end of the war, they were declared presumptively dead (KIA) and promoted to Sergeant First Class, which was the practice of the Defense Department at the time.

In March 2010, a team from the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), based at Hickham Air Force Base in Hawaii, found and recovered possible human remains, along with other evidence indicating the possibility that the three had at last been found.  Working together with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) in Crystal City, Virginia, JPAC was finally able to conclusively identify the remains as belonging to Brown, Shue, and Wald.

The ceremony at Arlington Cemetery was attended by the men’s surviving family members, veterans of MAVC-SOG, and other active duty soldiers who came to pay their last respects.  Soldiers from the Army’s Old Guard, stationed at Fort Myer, Virginia, adjacent to Arlington Cemetery, escorted the caisson carrying the remains after a memorial service at the Fort Myer Chapel.  An honor guard fired a twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor that can be bestowed, and a bugler played a mournful ‘Taps.’

The sky was a clear, crystal blue, and even the birds were silent during the service at graveside.  Folded American flags were presented to the family members.  There were no tears, but many stood in somber reverence as their sacrifice was recounted, myself among them.  I only knew Shue, a young soldier who was old beyond his years, but I remembered them, and the many like them, who, without hesitation or thought of praise, went into harm’s way in the service of their country; many who still remain unaccounted for, but for whom the search continues.  They may be gone, but they are clearly not forgotten.

Their sacrifice, and the honor with which they lived their lives, will never be forgotten.