A beloved Shelburne veteran embodied the spirit of Memorial Day this week, sharing recollections of wartime still fresh after 50 years, a message to remember those who gave their lives in uniform, and a warning to refrain from engaging in future wars.
For an hour on Monday morning, more than 400 people of all ages took time from their usual routine to gather on the Shelburne Parade Ground to remember and honor U.S. military service veterans from the community.
Retired Army Col. Carroll A. “Bud” Ockert, who celebrates his 84th birthday next week, took center stage before the Shelburne Veterans Monument.
“Why should we remember Memorial Day? We often take for granted the freedoms we Americans enjoy. We forget these freedoms were paid for with the lives of others a few of us knew,” Ockert said. “We are remembering those who lost their lives defending their country. Most remain anonymous except to the families who love them. Who are they? They came from all walks of life, from all over the country. They were relatives, neighbors and friends who came together as our nation’s defenders. They all had one thing in common: love and loyalty to country.”
Soldiers have no choice in where they serve or what foreign policy they enforce, Ockert said, yet their deaths all deserve remembrance.
“The loss of life of a member of the armed forces killed in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan is just as important as one killed in World War II,” he said. “We need to remember that the price of freedom is not free. It is paid for by the blood of our military. If you remember only this from today, I have been successful.”
Ockert held the crowd rapt with his keynote address and later accepted accolades from community members who marked the occasion with speeches, an original poem, and a park bench dedicated in Ockert’s honor. A school holiday meant the seventh- and eighth-grade students in the Shelburne Community School Wind Ensemble didn’t miss class to set up under a tent to provide the patriotic tunes that anchored the ceremony.
Ockert’s 30-plus-year military career took him and his family around the world, moving 19 times before returning to his hometown of Shelburne. For his remarks, he reached back to Vietnam War memories – both grim and humorous anecdotes that remain vivid and poignant some 50 years after the war began.
Ockert recalled his tour of duty in Vietnam beginning in July 1968 when he was assigned to a surgical hospital located on a base in support of the 9th Infantry Division.
“Neither I nor the hospital staff saw combat in the bush,” Ockert said. “What we saw were the results of combat – casualties and death.”
Ockert recounted one instance in vivid detail:
“I can still see as clear today as the day it happened. I rode with him on a medical evacuation helicopter. … He was 19 years old. He looked like any other young man you’d see in Shelburne or Burlington. The only sign of any problem was a small hole in his forehead from a sniper. He lay there … unresponsive. No movement. Eyes open and staring … completely oblivious to his surroundings. He was alive, but for all intent and purposes, he was brain dead.”
Ockert told of seeing a surgeon crack open a chest to massage the heart of a dying soldier. He recalled the base taking mortar fire.
He lightened his talk with examples he compared to scenes from the hit 1970s TV comedy series M*A*S*H set in a fictional mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War. Ockert said much of the show was “not farfetched” because especially in a combat zone, people relied on humor to cope.
He recounted a hovering Chinook helicopter that blew over a four-unit toilet, luckily with no one in it at the time. He explained how relatives of Vietnamese patients would visit the hospital ward and, wanting to feed their injured soldier, they would start cooking fires under hospital beds.
Also as depicted in the TV show, Ockert said real-life combat hospital camaraderie was strong.
“I worked with some of the finest, most capable, most dependable, professional and knowledgeable doctors and nurses that I have ever worked with. We were a family. We worked as a family. We cried as a family. We celebrated as a family. We watched over each other as a family.”
But Ockert said he can attest to returning home to a stinging welcome in the early 1970s.
“What I received upon my return from Vietnam when I was assigned to the office of the Army surgeon general in Washington D.C. was something I never dreamed I would encounter in my own country. If we appeared anywhere in a uniform in public, we were spit on. We were assaulted. We were cursed. We were cussed. We were slapped. We were struck. We were jostled and we were humiliated. We were called all kinds of names … as a result we were directed to wear civilian clothes instead of uniforms.”
On Monday, Ockert did not just look back. Near the close of the ceremony, he offered one more piece of hard-earned wisdom.
“I cannot emphasize enough the need to refrain from putting our youth in harm’s way in the future as we have in the past. This should only be done with undisputable evidence … that is in our national best interest to do so because of a threat to our nation’s security and our way of life.”
Among the other speakers was state Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, who read a letter from Gov. Phil Scott. “Your character represents the best Vermont has to offer,” the governor wrote.
Town Poet Laureate Rick Bessette, of course, penned a verse of tribute for the occasion. With Ockert at his side, he read it from the podium:
“Our town, our state and our country
Extends to you our grateful hands,
For dedication and service
Reaching far beyond your homeland.
From Germany to Vietnam,
Clear across our United States,
With leadership and commitment
These honorable, humble traits.
Colonel Ockert, we salute you
On this our Memorial Day,
To let you know how proud we are
In a most sincere, thankful way.”
The Shelburne Veterans Monument Committee and the Charlotte Shelburne Hinesburg Rotary honored Ockert with a new bench near the monument. The monument itself is surrounded by memorial bricks bearing the names of veterans and their years of service. New engravings are installed by veterans each year ahead of the Memorial Day ceremony. Boy Scouts read the names added this year: Nancy Bradley, Lorenzo Bushway, William Coates, Frank Cross, Michael Doran, Phillip Dutton, Maurice Gaudette, Lief Keelty, Charles LaClair, Patrick McKnight, Feelon Morris, William Prouty Jr., Robert Slauterbeck, Thomas Snay.
In a collaboration with the Shelburne Historical Society, Veterans Monument Committee member Colleen Haag is compiling a history of the veterans named on the bricks. She asks veterans or their family members to send a photo and some pertinent details and stories of interest for the project. For more information, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-324-1820.