By Tom Pauken
As we honor our military servicemen and women this Veterans Day, my personal thoughts go to a former Marine named Rick Eilert who was one of the more than two and a half million young Americans who served our country as soldiers in Vietnam.
Rick was a young Marine lance corporal who triggered a land mine while on patrol in Vietnam. The grenade exploded, and Rick was severely wounded. Ultimately, he made his way to Ward Three South at Great Lake Naval Hospital to recover from his serious injuries under the care of a remarkable doctor named Dr. Boone Brackett. In his book "For Self and Country", Eilert vividly recounts what it was like to see what was left of his legs after his injuries in Vietnam. He quotes Dr. Boone on the subject: "It's a real mess, isn't it? Charlie didn't leave much for us to work with. But as long as it hurts it's yours and anything that's yours is better than a piece of lumber hanging from a stump."
A year later, after more than 30 operations, Rick Eilert finally was able to go home. He was all of 20 years old.
It would have been easy for Rick to despair of his military service after all he had been through – think of the soldier played by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone's "Born on the 4th of July". Instead, Rick married his high school sweetheart Cheryl, found work with great difficulty (hiring Vietnam Veterans was not in fashion back in the 1970s), and raised a family.
Later, Rick wrote "For Self and Country", a truly inspirational book. Dr. Boone wrote the forward to the book which describes Rick's story so well: "As a medical officer in Vietnam, I knew well the faces of the wounded and the depression that inevitably followed as the wounded fighting man gradually became aware of the awful finality of a crippling injury. The courage displayed in these circumstances was often of the highest kind, combined in this case with the rarest and most precious gift of all, the ability to laugh at oneself."
Even after all that Rick Eilert had been through, he still loved his country. I had the good fortune to get to know Rick when we worked together in our Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program during the Reagan administration. Simply put, Rick Eilert became the heart and soul of that program of "veteran helping veteran". We all looked up to him for his courage, love of country, and willingness to make a difference in the lives of his fellow Vietnam Veterans who were struggling with problems after their Vietnam experience.
Rick Eilert was buried at Arlington National Cemetery a few months ago. His family and friends gathered to honor this fine man one last time. Many of us who worked with Rick in the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program joined with his family in celebrating his life and praying for the repose of his soul. He will be missed.
Tom Pauken is Chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission and author of Bringing America Home.