RIO RANCHO, N.M. — It’s the tail end of a Rotary meeting as two men named Jim prepare to relive a portion of war that has followed them most of their lives.
Jim McCracken goes first, pushing through any awkwardness he may feel sharing his memories of war with a complete stranger.
“It reminds me of a bunch of guys that gave their lives voluntarily without any qualms at all,” he said.
McCracken, who flew a C-123 Provider cargo plane during the Vietnam War, said many of his close friends and colleagues died during a time when many in the U.S. were not very supportive of their efforts.
“It wasn’t a good time to be in the military,” he said. “Now that time has passed and many people understand the entire story behind why we were there, things have changed for the better.”
Things have changed so much that McCracken, along with fellow Rotarian Jim Wheatley, who served in the Army during the Vietnam War, have bought flags in remembrance of those closest to them during the war.
These flags are part of the Rotary Club of Rio Rancho’s very first Field of Honor, which will be held at the Rio Rancho Sports Complex and include a ceremony at 2 p.m. Nov. 11.
The Rotary Club is selling 250 flags at $40 each for those in the community who wish to honor a first responder, military member or a fallen service member.
The flags will be on display Nov. 9-11, with purchasers being able to take them home after the ceremony. Each flag is 3-feet-by-5-feet and comes with a pole and mounting stand.
Wheatley has bought 15 flags – representing the 15 fallen soldiers.
“For me, the ‘Field of Honor’ is very important because we never want to forget the sacrifices that these men gave,” he said.
Wheatley said he was a 1st Division rifle company commander when he entered the Vietnam War in 1965.
“During the time I was involved in ground operations, I lost 15 men in my company,” he said solemnly. “I didn’t really know them very well, but I was there when they paid the ultimate price.”
Wheatley said he sought closure to this chapter of his life by returning to Vietnam twice, in 2002 and 2004.
“The second time I went back, I took my wife and we found the very area in Lai Khe, which is just north of Saigon, where I was stationed for a year,” he said. “I got very emotional standing there, because the whole thing came rushing back to me. I was on the ground with these men side by side, and I can still remember incidents when these soldiers were killed.”
Wheatley said, emotional response aside, he was glad he went back and took his wife so she could get the full picture of what he was writing to her about from the field all those years ago.
McCracken had the same sentiment, yet he said he didn’t carry the weight of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder although he missed the men he served with very much.
“I was with a bunch of guys that I really loved,” he said. “We lost them in a situation where they shouldn’t have been lost, and that’s really all I have to say.”
McCracken said closure for him came with him accepting the war was out of his control.
“There’s not much else to say about it…Going to war was something we did and something we are proud of and something that we hope no one else has to do,” he said.
For more information about purchasing, call James Maes at 710-4774 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.