On Veteran’s Day this year, Alfred West received two gifts.
One was a Bronze Star, the U.S. military’s fourth-highest medal recognizing heroic or meritorious service, awarded to him almost four decades after he served in the Vietnam War.
The second gift was meeting some of the children of Maj. Paul Leary, the commander West served under in Vietnam, and dedicating the medal to his fallen comrade’s memory.
“It gave me some closure,” West said.
He received the medal in a Veteran’s Day ceremony at the Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial. West was awarded the Bronze Star for his role in a top-secret mission to help Cambodia fight off an attack from the North Vietnamese army.
“We were up against hard Viet Cong and lost a commander and many Cambodian troops,” West recalled. “Two missing in action haven’t been found today. I’m blessed to be here.”
Last Friday, West, a 1962 graduate of Glen Rose High School, was honored at a reception in Meridian. Other Vietnam veterans came to share stories and camaraderie. The oldest veteran was a man who had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II.
Also attending were eight of West’s friends from his graduating class — Gene Bass, Rosemary Jobe, Jerry Keller, Glen Rose Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Martin, Russell Moore, Earl Royal, Jim Williams and Ed Wilson. Another friend, R.C. McFall of the Class of 1963, also showed up to wish West well.
“Some of the best years of my life were spent in Glen Rose,” West said. He and his wife, Martha, a teacher, now live on a farm in Kopperl in Bosque County.
West looked tall and fit in his uniform and Green Beret cap. Martha had brought his Glen Rose Tigers letter jacket and his yearbook to the reception. There were just 29 students in his graduating class. West had been named the “Most Handsome” and was well liked by his classmates. He had plans and dreams.
“I had my whole life ahead of me and I couldn’t see anything getting in the way,” West said.
But the Vietnam War changed West’s plans.
West had landed a job with an aerospace firm in Hurst, now a Fort Worth suburb. He was offered a position as a sales representative.
“All I had to do was fly around and make money,” he recalled. “But I couldn’t go and not serve my country when men and women were dying.”
He got to fly around, but above the jungles of Cambodia. West became a Green Beret, part of an elite group of Special Forces soldiers who worked on top-secret missions. He went through airborne training, was assigned to a platoon in the 82nd Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., and offered the opportunity to go into the Special Forces.
Once he did, West and his comrades went straight to Vietnam. In January 1971 his Special Forces unit was ambushed and two American soldiers were captured. West’s commander, Leary, was killed when he tried to rescue the men.
In addition to dedicating his medal to his fallen commander and gave a Green Beret cap to two of Leary’s children, Paula and Timothy, who traveled from Wichita Falls for the ceremony.
He also gave them a pair of sapphire earrings for their mother. Leary had given West $50 to buy the jewelry as a present for his wife. After Leary was killed, West kept the jewelry and finally tracked down the Leary family through an online “Vietnam wall” that listed the names of those killed in combat and a genealogy researcher.
The Vietnam veterans received a warm reception in Meridian, but they recalled the cold, even hostile reception they received upon returning to the States after the war.
Sherrod Fielden, the poet laureate of Bosque County, read a poem he had written about Vietnam soldiers that spoke of the “political quagmire that deeply divided our homeland.”
“We did not come home to a welcome party, by any means,” West said.
One of the organizers of the reception, however, expressed her gratitude.
“It’s about time we said ‘thank you’ publicly,” she said and the veterans received standing ovation.
After a lunch of barbecue, West posed for a picture with his 1962 classsmates. He was around his friends again and had found some of the peace he had wanted after the war. West said he, too, was grateful for the love and friendship of so many who had come to share his honor.
“I’m so thankful for what you’ve given me today,” he said.