First Cav, First Cavalry, Fred Owens, Freddie J Owens, Freddie Owens, Ia Drang Valley, oral history of Vietnam, University of Tennessee oral history of Vietnam, Vet-to-Vet Tennessee, veteran, Vietnam War
My army brother became my hero when I was growing up. There was just enough years between us for me to look at him as a father figure, a night in shining armor. When he decided to attend the 40th reunion of the Vietnam War’s Ia Drang Valley survivors in Washington DC, I decided to go with him. And, I was going to get him something special: a First Cav jacket with his name embroidered. I was told Freddie Owens was my man.
I sent Freddie an email asking him to order a jacket for my brother. Freddie knew him, he had served in the same platoon in Vietnam. He would make sure my brother got it in time to pack and bring along to the reunion. I told him I was going to the reunion, too, and he asked if I had read the book, We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, written by Joe Galloway and Hal Moore, of the Ia Drang Valley ambush. I told him my brother had given me a paperback with his notes and yes, I had read it. “Get a hard copy and walk around with it. Put it under your arm where people can see it,” Freddie instructed. “They (the survivors) will see you and will talk to you then. You can get them to sign it.” And so I did.
Right from the beginning, I found myself listening to Freddie.
November 11, 2005. The minute I got off the elevator and walked into the Friday night’s reception of the Ia Drang Valley survivors’ 40th reunion, I heard his voice. His laugh was rich and full. I turned in that direction, to the far left corner of the room, by the windows. I knew it was Freddie, standing tall behind a long table full of souvenirs and memorabilia marking the reunion. I stood and watched him for a full minute before I made my way across the room to him. Even then, I hesitated. We had only emailed and then talked a bit on the phone. He would know my voice but he wouldn’t know me.
I started at the far end of the table, picking up a few things to stall introducing myself. I listened to him chat with everyone, a laugh never far behind. He was irresistibly charming, handsome, sincere, and open. He made me smile, even then. I made my way to him and stopped, hands empty. Freddie looked at me with a slightly quizzical look. I blurted out, “Well, hello there, Mr. Freddie!” and smiled. I stuck my hand out to him and said, I’m Karen St. John. We talked on the phone and you got the jacket for my brother.” By this time he had recognized MY voice and was grinning. He grabbed my hand and shook it heartily. We chatted for a few minutes about my brother and then I left him to his task of getting his merchandise to the right people.
I didn’t know it then, but our 13 years of friendship had just begun.
I walked around the room, carrying the hard copy of my book under my arm. Freddie was so right, as I was to learn he was on so many other things. The survivors would spot the book and come up to me, offering to sign the page on which they were mentioned. They would point out other people to me, and in that room I met 2, soon to be 3, Medal of Honor recipients. The room was full of heroes.
I was to learn from Freddie years later, that when he took veterans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for the first time, he would do it in stages. “It’s, ah…very emotional…very emotional…for veterans,” he explained. He would take them a bit, then stop and talk. A bit more, then stop and talk. On like that until the Wall loomed, and that was the next “stop.” Sometimes, a veteran couldn’t complete the journey to the Wall, and would turn around. “That’s okay, that’s okay. You’ll do it next time. But you have to keep trying,” Freddie would tell them. He believed their healing could not start, or be complete, without touching the Wall, their Wall.
That weekend changed my life. The statistics on the page, the vivid descriptions of the fighting, were no longer academic details…it all had faces of multiple shapes and colors, like a kaleidoscope of life. But the eyes…the eyes all reflected the same pain. For the first time I not only saw the uniform, which I had always loved…I saw the human being wearing it, and Freddie was the first.
Freddie sent me photos he had taken of the weekend. He became my Vietnam War consultant. He spoke to me of the march to Landing Zone (LZ) X-Ray, the confusion of the ambush; moving on to LZ Albany, where he was wounded. He knew which LZ any man in his platoon had been to, and would correct anybody who got it wrong. Over the years, he peeled off layers of information about my brother’s near fatal wounding. He told me of the four men who grabbed the corners of my brother’s bloody poncho and took him to the Medevac site. Only one made it back safely. He knew the medic, Daniel Torrez, who was another one of the angels who saved my brother’s life that day in November. He told me of Bruce Crandall, the helicopter pilot, who picked my brother up on his 22nd of 23 runs into the Valley to save the wounded. He told it all to me. But there was so much more in his head I didn’t know. His recordings of his memories for the oral history of the Vietnam War were mesmerizing. He was a sergeant who took taking care of his men seriously…in training…on the field…and afterwards, when the traumas of war reared its ugly head.
Freddie was a healer. His brothers-in-arms and their families turned to him in times of need. He told me once that he had had a tough week. He had received a call in the middle of the night from the wife of one of his brothers-in-arms who thought he was back in combat. His wife cried while she told Freddie her husband was in a crouched position, cradling the air as if it were a rifle, searching the house for the enemy. She couldn’t make him wake up and she was scared. Freddie said, “I told her to give him the phone. And then I told him, ‘This is your Sergeant! Now listen up, brother.’” Freddie stayed on the phone with this man until he was lifted out of the Ia Drang Valley and back safely at home, and asleep. It had taken Freddie three hours to talk him back. The man remembered nothing of the incident the next day. That was only one story, of hundreds.
Freddie was my guide to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). He helped me understand the code of percentages, what the VA was addressing, what healthcare it provided. He would explain about the veterans who contacted him about their percentage, and how he would help them work through the bureaucracy. He never lost faith in the agency. “It’s a system that works. You just gotta know how to work it. That’s what I tell them,” he said to me.
He was my resource for people searching for information on their father, grandfather, brother, friend…or just on the War. I knew when strangers reached out to me to see if I could help them find out about so-and-so, that I could refer them to Freddie and he would know. He responded to everybody with grace, and I would usually be gifted with a follow-up story from him on added details. With all the multitude of people I sent his way over the years, there was probably only 1 or 2, that Freddie could not offer his help, because he didn’t know the person. He created a Facebook page for those who survived the Ia Drang Valley ambush, and for the families and friends of those who had fallen: We Were Soldiers Once and Young: Ia Drang Valley 1965. He made me an administrator, but he was always the one who posted the information and answered the messages. The last update on hits placed the site as over 7,000 likes.
Vet-to-Vet Tennessee was one of Freddie’s personal projects. As co-founder, he was dedicated to helping veterans through groups counseling. He was tireless in making its motto, “Each One, Reach One, Teach One” a success. And so it is.
Mid-way between our short friendship, I announced to him that he was an angel the rest of us were just renting for a while. He guffawed at the joke. But it wasn’t one to me. I knew it in my bones, that this man was a good man…a blessed being among us. Freddie was a religious and church-going man who had found his God; but moreso, he was a spiritual soul who had found his bit of bliss. He and I found common ground in the not-so-common. Freddie knew I was a Buddhist, and it didn’t bother him. I knew he wasn’t, and it didn’t bother me. He was proud of his Church, the pastor he admired and cared for; the groups, and the congregation. He sent me a recording of his pastor’s lectures, and I was moved by the compassion and insight.
As we talked over the years, I wrote on topics he suggested. I researched topics that were important to him. He kept educating me on the Ia Drang Valley…Hal and Julia Moore…LZ X-Ray and Albany. George Forrest. Herrick’s isolated platoon. He stressed the importance of courts for veterans that were more compassionate than the “normal” courts in the justice system. I was reviewing books written by veterans or about veterans, and films, for a veterans’ magazine. I would ask Freddie if he knew about this fella or that fella, that situation or this one. When he knew, it opened up a whole interstate of other paths to take.
But Freddie wasn’t just a walking record of what had happened there in the Valley in November of 1965. I heard about his growing up and the Civil Rights movement; his military assignment in Germany; his French ancestry; his father who served on the USS Arizona. I had the wonderful joy of meeting his lovely sister Mariam, and her thoughtful husband, Joe, when they came through my city. He mentioned family gatherings and always spoke a song of love for his beloved wife, Diana.
Freddie was a man of great insight and patience, and one of the most energetic men I’ve every known. He was constantly on the go…coaching, mentoring, photographing, keeping up with the happenings in the lives of his family and friends. He was a gentle heart of steel resolve and goodness. When he couldn’t reach me one day and left a teasing voicemail about my going out and about all the time, I called him back. With a pronounced arrogant, faux British accent, I informed him that I had, indeed, been out “for tea (te-ah)” at a local tea café. We both laughed, and from that point on, when he got my voicemail, he would ask if I was out having tea again. Freddie was my friend. He was my brother. He accepted me, cared about me, made me feel good about myself and the effort I wanted to make in helping veterans. He not only supported my writing, he treated me like a writer. My words were important to him…it was a way to get his message out, too.
We talked of other things, especially Freddie’s brother-in-arms, my blood brother who suffered from PTSD. Freddie was intensely worried about him and kept reaching out, but my brother wouldn’t respond. Freddie had suffered as well for many years, but then found a treatment that worked. He wanted my brother to undergo it and save himself. After years of trying to get through to my brother, Freddie stopped. “At some point, you just have to let go,” he told me. “It’s now up to him and I’ll be there for him, but I’m through trying.” He then comforted ME, to reassure me that my brother was in charge of his life, and there was nothing I could do, either. For the remaining years of our friendship, when Freddie and I talked, he always asked after my brother.
My last conversation with Freddie was on March 11. I could hear the weakness in his voice. But even then, he was, “Okay, okay. I’m okay.” He asked me to look into the suicide rate of our veterans, that his Vet-to-Vet program was being very successful in reaching out and saving lives. Perhaps their program could be repeated elsewhere in the country, and I could write an article on it, to help promote the program. He promised to send me the info he had. Because Freddie asked me to, I sad yes I’d write the article.
On March 30, I was gently informed that he had died.
In my immediate grief, I could not think straight. The next day it struck me that he had left a voicemail message for me, and I had called him back. I grabbed my phone and there it was: Freddie Owens, with a voicemail. I hit the speaker and out came his voice: “G…i…i…r…r…r…l, where ARE you? You must be out havin’ tea.” Tears welled up in my eyes for the umpteenth time. But this time, I heard something I hadn’t paid attention to before. At the end of his message he told me, “You better call and talk to me, girl, otherwise you won’t get a chance to.” Freddie knew he was dying.
It’s hard to describe the sun when you are up close. You don’t see the full effect it has on the horizon in the morning when it turns everything amber and gold; or in the evening when it turns everything pink and purple. You don’t feel the gentle warmth on your face in the spring, or the way your heart lifts when it shines in the winter, and gives you hope of sweeter days. Freddie was like the sun…you think you can describe him because you knew him, but you don’t ever see the whole picture. It is impossible to completely describe Freddie. His family knows of all he did for them. His Church knows of all he did for it. The sports teams know of all he did for them. Our veterans know of all he did for them. I know of all he did for me. But together, we still don’t know all he did for others. This I know for sure: Freddie was my brother. And my brother was my hero.
Rest in peace, our beloved Freddie. You will be sorely missed, but your spirit will thrive. Your sun will shine for us another day and we will be healed. As you promised all of us, we will be okay.