This is a story about a young man from a small Amish town willing to serve in a war far away. Andy grew up on a farm overlooking Cedar Creek in Leo, Indiana, with a devoted mother and father and sister. Despite ambitions beyond college, a full slate of activities resulted in less than stellar grades. Andy knew he would be drafted, so he volunteered for the Army. He was lucky enough to be assigned to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade.
After boot camp and a quick visit to family, friends, and sweetheart, he arrived in Vietnam in September 1967. Earning a Bronze Star with Valor within three months, he joined his sweetheart for R and R in Hawaii, where they were married. Back to Vietnam, and the most intense fighting and toughest battle were before him.
Andy sustained a traumatic head injury from a grenade blast. Quick thinking from his brother-in-arms, Jim Choquette, resulted in Andy being air evacuated to the nearby Army Hospital, then to Japan, then to Walter Reed Army Hospital. All the while, his life hung in the balance and he was in a deep coma. Twenty-eight days later, after a third craniotomy, Andy was awake … despite partial right paralysis, a left eye removed, and an inability to talk, Andy was alive!
Fast forward 20 years, Andy had relearned to talk after five years, been divorced from his first wife, moved to Tampa on his own, had his own apartment, remarried, reconnected with his family in Indiana, participated in the first of many sessions of testing through the massive Vietnam Head Injury Study, participated in the VA Brain Injury Rehab Program in Palo Alto, California, traveled extensively with his second wife, and reconnected with his brothers-in-arms, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, which held its reunions in D.C., where the Vietnam Wall was located.
There were significant and divine connections all along the way in Andy’s journey of recovery. The Vietnam Wall and the group that supports it and the veterans whose names are engraved there were instrumental … I will come back back to that. The significant and instrumental connections along the way that allowed Andy to live and to recover are the following folks … Andy’s significant head injury was considered non-survivable, but the love connection and prayer of Andy’s first wife provided the golden thread to life. Dr. McKinney from Chicago and Dr. Tucker from the Tampa VA helped reconstruct Andy’s very handsome previous appearance. The Mainstream Program, located in Martinsburg VA, enabled Andy to regain social skills. One of the most strategic participants in Andy’s life was his brigade, the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, whose soldier, Jan Scruggs, created the idea of having a wall with the names of those lost in the war engraved on it.
The United States began to heal and their attitudes toward Vietnam veterans began to change because of the Wall. The celebration of 1982 marked a 180-degree change in attitude. Andy began attending the reunions there in the early ’90s. The men went out of their way to reach out to him … most folks from Andy’s former life had a very difficult time connecting with Andy because he was so different from in his previous life. Popular, athletic, humorous, fun-loving, and devoted to family and country, Andy was still fun-loving, athletic, humorous, and devoted to family and country, but with a temper and prone to outbursts. However, most people could sense Andy was an endearing and caring guy … with an edge.
Fast forward 20 years, despite careful medical monitoring, Andy was losing ground mobility-wise. Hitting the bucket list hard was the goal of Andy and his wife, Gwen. They saw a lot of this country until traveling was no longer possible. He was accepted into the Bay Pines VA Community Living Center (a nursing home). He had a great experience with a wide variety of activities, great care, community outings, musical visits from locals, and the great honor and respect provided by staff to their veterans in care.
During Andy’s time there, it was discovered that he had not received many medals due him, so on Oct. 13, 2018, a medal ceremony was held … 50 years late, but on time for Andy. He died eight months later on May 24, 2018, of a diagnosis that was later attributed (in part) to his original injury in Vietnam. Andy was buried in Arlington on his 75th birthday, May 7, 2019.
In May 2021, Andy’s name was engraved in a perfect spot between Smiths in the year in which he experienced the catastrophic injury that should have ended his life but did not. On Memorial Day 2021, Andy’s name was celebrated, along with six other names that were recently engraved on the Wall. Who else was there to honor, celebrate, and remember Andy and all the other veterans from their Brigade? The 199th Light Infantry Brigade was there. To place cards of remembrance on the 746 names, to place a wreath at the Vietnam Wall, to provide support and care to Andy’s widow, to share their memories of their brother-in-arms, and to continue to provide help and support to make sure Andy received all the honors due him. Come to find out he should have received an Oak Cluster to mark two Purple Hearts, add a Good Conduct Medal, and remove a medal Andy was not eligible for because he was off the roster and in Walter Reed.
Thanks to Richard Masters, Lauri Ruffino, and Hugh Foster for their constant vigilance and quick response to any of their men, their families, or those veterans who have passed on to eternity. This is what they do … here today to protect, support, and defend their guys. Andy gave his all, willingly. He loved his country wholeheartedly, Andy enjoyed life and loved being married (mostly!), but he never hesitated to say he would do it all again in a minute, as he loved the men he served with.
Gwen Burchard Smith