Local vets recall those who didn’t come home

May 27, 2013 

— Special to the Fort Mill Times

Memorial Day is a day to remember the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Fort Mill’s Veterans of Foreign Wars hall at 1442 Harris Road is reserved for men and women who have seen combat for at least 30 days.

Visitors are welcome, however, and two members agreed recently to share their recollections of war, including memories of those who didn’t make it home.

Vietnam vet

Robert K. Elkin, 66, a Punxsutawney, Pa., native is a retired member of the Navy. He served as a corpsman for the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Elkin was about to get drafted because his grades were not up to par while attending Penn State Extension. He joined the Navy’s 120-day program so he could finish his second year.

After Elkin signed up and finished his second year of school, he was sent to California because his twin brother was stationed in Vietnam as a member of the Army. He wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam until his brother returned due to the tragedy of the Sullivan brothers – siblings who all died while fighting in World War II (the story that inspired the film “Saving Private Ryan”).

Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Elkin’s main duty was to make sure the Marines were taken care of during times of combat and after. Whether it was supplying medicine or setting an IV, Elkin’s purpose was to keep those men alive. On the night of Aug. 25, 1969, Elkin was on patrol in Tu Cau. The men were ambushed before they could get settled in.

“There were about 200 (the enemy) of them screaming while they were coming at us,” Elkin said. “I found four wounded men and I patched them up. I was terrified, but I had a job to do.”

During the firefight, which typically lasted about 30 to 40 seconds, the corpsman was hit with shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade. He received a Purple Heart, a decoration given to an injured member of the military.

Elkin also discussed why those returning from Vietnam suffered such harsh criticism.

“The TV made the military look bad,” Elkin said.

The war stories were no longer just in newspapers, magazines and books, but shown live on the news. The men were called “baby killers,” and the war, to some critics, was a loss – America’s first.

“It was a mistake to televise this war,” Elkin said. “We should have just briefed the news, and not have them see what we do for survival.”

Looking back, Elkin remembers the more than 50,000 Americans who gave their lives fighting in Vietnam.

“I wanted to save the Marines and get out of there,” Elkin said. “I am sitting and talking because of them.”

Elkin is thankful he made it home and has words for U.S. troops now serving in Afghanistan.

“Don’t trust anyone over there,” he said. “The same guy cutting your hair might shoot you at night.”

The veteran added he has had a good life, and if he had to do it over, he would still want to spend his time with the Marines as a corpsman. After the Navy, he worked in a chemical plant for 30 years in Illinois. He is married with two kids and has three grandchildren. He lives in Rock Hill.

Serving in the desert

Isaac A. Miller III, 47, a Washington, D.C, native is a retired member of the Army. He served during Operation Desert Storm. He decided, in the late 1980s, to join to help pay for school because he couldn’t afford classes at the University of Maryland.

Staff Sgt. E-6 Miller went overseas in 1990. He went to Saudi Arabia and later saw combat in Iraq.

“There were skirmishes at the border of Iraq and Saudi Arabia,” Miller said. “It lasted three days and we were sent back to the tally point because the ground war ended and Kuwait was liberated.”

Miller was a medic who followed and recovered the wounded. There are three types of hospitals: Combat Support Hospital, Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and Evacuations Hospital. Miller supported emergency training technicians at a CSH and an EH, where the wounded would be transported to a fixed facility.

Aside from combat, the veteran was stationed in Bosnia, Germany and Hungary.

“During times of peace, our missions in Bosnia were to keep Croatians and Serbians from fighting,” Miller said.

Miller also reflected on what it was like coming home.

“I am glad it was rapid, but we should have stayed longer to defeat Saddam,” Miller said. “There were weapons hidden in the hospitals and places of worship there because we couldn’t just go in there and search.”

He also has a message for the troops of today:

“I wish them the best of luck,” Miler said. “Don’t trust anyone. Be diligent, be smart and be about your business. Remember your orders, and that will keep you alive.”

With the knowledge he received from taking cardiovascular courses and treating the wounded, Miller now works in the cardiac catheterization lab at Carolinas Medical Center.

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