Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Farewell to a Vietnam veteran who showed others how to live.

An update: Some corrections to yesterday's post -- plus a wonderful response from Maureen Gerwig, Mike's widow. Her response is at the bottom.

From the tidbits I had heard about Mike Gerwig from his wife, Maureen, it's clear that they were both determined to squeeze out every ounce of adventure life had to offer. During his memorial service today at the Riverside National Cemetery, a heavily-laden Air Force C-17 transport jet circled over again and again from March Air Reserve Base, just across the freeway, as young pilots practiced touch-and-go landings.
It reminded Maureen that they had first met, some four decades ago,  while skydiving out of nearby Perris Valley Airport. It's ironic that, back then, they could have looked down and seen the very spot where she would say "goodbye" to him for the last time. When they fell out of the sky alongside each other, you see, they also fell for each other.
They would travel the world together -- and not in any conventional way. Again, they thirsted for adventure.
She told a couple of Mike's skydiving buddies today about how she and Mike had biked through the Soviet mountains, had hiked across northern England and had fallen asleep gazing at the aurora borealis during a month-long camping trip -- a trip that required a four-hour dog sled journey (not by snowmobile as I incorrectly reported) through the wilderness just to get to the secluded lake in the northern Yukons.
Mike had fought in Vietnam. Maureen helped him fight at home -- fight to get him the treatment he needed for the damage that combat and Agent Orange had done to his body and his mind.
She fought -- for him and beside him -- right up to the end.
When time had run out for Mike -- when it was clear that he wouldn't get the transplant he so needed, Maureen drove him to the V.A. facility in La Jolla, near San Diego, so he could say goodbye to his dying brother. It was Memorial Day weekend.
 When they got back to their Woodland Hills home, Mike asked Maureen to take him to the emergency hospital. He was too weak to return home. He spent his final hours in a Veterans Administration hospice at the Sepulveda facility. When Maureen got the call that he had died, she drove there expecting to find a depressing place that smelled of urine and looked like a rest-home warehouse nightmare.
But she was wrong. Instead, she entered what seemed like a paradise of love and care. They had made up Mike's bed and draped him in an American flag. They encouraged her to spend as much time as she wanted with him. Afterwards, staff members and fellow veterans conducted a bedside ceremony for Mike. They even played Taps.
Today's memorial ceremony was equally beautiful. Mike's long-time skydiving buddies, John Bull and Tom Brown came to honor him, along with Tom's daughter, Elisa. She remembered admiring the deep friendship between her father and Mike. John and Tom talked about Mike's generosity and the encouragement he would give to beginning and experienced skydivers.
The Army Honor Guard members were the picture of respect and precision. They marched in with Mike's wicker urn and the American Flag that they later would unfold, ceremoniously refold and hand to Maureen. They fired volley of three rifle shots and then stood at "present arms" while the bugler played Taps.
It turns out that I had the privilege of representing Vietnam veterans at Mike's ceremony. I was hoping there would be others there, but knowing the life of being a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, I could only figure that, like me, Mike preferred to spend his time with his wife.
Solitude and isolation easily can become a way of life for combat veterans.
I meant to go straight home when I left, but something called out to me from across the 215 freeway. It had been more than 10 years since I last visited the War Dog Memorial at the March Air Force Base Museum. I had been there when they first unveiled the statue of an alert German shepherd and his handler. I hadn't noticed before that both of them are looking out in the direction of the Riverside National Cemetery -- and they were in direct view of Mike's final resting place. They'll be watching over him the way my dog Fritz watched over me in Vietnam.

Then I realized that, in all likelihood, the dog and his handler be watching over me one day as well.

The trip to Riverside today took on even more meaning than I had anticipated. When I was driving home, I was regretting that Xiao Mei hadn't been able to come along. The day will come when she'll be coming to visit me there -- without me being able to give her directions.

Maureen Gerwig's response email:


Don,
 
Just read your blog.  Beautiful. 
 
After the funeral services I followed John Bull and Tom Brown over to the Perris skydiving complex where they were going to make a jump in honor of Mike and Elisa said she was going to make her first jump, in honor of Mike.  The place has certainly changed since I was last there in the early 1980s.  Because I didn’t want to get caught up in traffic on the way home, I did not stay for the jump.  However, I know Mike would have been overwhelmed and honored by it all. (Weather conditions prevented the others from being able to make a jump).
 
Yes, Mike’s skydiving buddies being there was such a gift to the occasion and brought the memory of Mike alive.
 
There were just a few things in the blog, though, one about falling asleep together after watching the  aurora borealis and driving in by a snow mobile.  I would never ride in a snow mobile except if maybe I was a rancher or someone who used it for work purposes. 
 
We spent the month of February living in a cabin out in the Yukon wilderness.  The cabin was owned by a dog musher, who also competed on a regular basis in the Yukon Quest.  His name was Blaine, and I can’t remember his last name, but I got his name by calling around beforehand when I was at home in Los Angeles, because I wanted to experience living in the wilderness in the middle of winter. 
 
The cabin we stayed in was Blaine’s original cabin, and he had just finished building himself a much larger new cabin just over the knoll.  We flew into Whitehorse and were driven to a place off the highway where we met Blaine and some of his dogs.  As soon as we were dropped off, Blaine had us immediately get the dogs harnessed to the two dog sleds because it was a four-hour trip to the cabin.  Blaine and I took one sled and Mike handled the other sled by himself.   As we started off, we quickly came to a sharp turn in the trail and Blaine was looking back at Mike, because he said most people don’t make that turn and wind up tipping over.   Mike took the turn in perfect form.   Mike was having the time of his life.  The temperature was minus 18, and at one point we had to stop and put booties on all the dogs to protect their feet.  
 
We stayed there for a little over three weeks living in Blaine’s old cabin, which was built half underground.   Blaine stayed over the knoll in his new, much larger cabin.  The dogs, about 18 of them, were spread out at their respective places outside.  The outdoor toilet was situated in between the two cabins.  There was no electricity, plumbing or telephone.  We were surrounded by the beautiful silence of nature. 
 
Each day Blaine would lead us out on little day trips.   For about a two-day period, Blaine made a dog sled trip and came back with more supplies.
 
The night we saw the aurora borealis, Blaine suggested we could take our sleeping bags with us and camp outside overnight.  We put on our snow shoes and traveled about a mile to an overlook with a somewhat forested area behind us where we set up our overhead tarp and sleeping bags.   Then the three of us walked over to the edge of the overlook and waited to see if the aurora borealis would show itself that night.  We were not disappointed.  For Blaine it was something he’s seen all his life; for us it was memorable.   Then we, all three of us, went and got in our sleeping bags.  That night the temperature dropped to somewhere around minus 27 degrees.  So, no, we weren’t laying there asleep in each other’s arms in the snow in the minus 27 degree temperatures.  And at no time was a snow mobile to be seen. 
 
I also have three beautiful blown-up photographs of Mike taken from that Yukon adventure. 
 
Also, we didn’t bicycle across Russia.  It was a mountain bike trek put together by REI, the outdoor store that’s based in Seattle.  They also offer outdoor adventure travel.  There nine people on the trip; it was a very eclectic group of people.  It was a month-long mountain bike trip through the Crimea during the period of Perestroika.  The trip was in late September/early October of 1990. 
 
I will share with you something Mike wrote about that trip.  It’s from something he wrote back in 2009, I think, when veterans who filed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) claims used to have to write essays, I guess you might call them, about their war experiences.
 
Mike wrote:  "In 1990, my wife and I went on a mountain bike trip with REI Adventures to the former Soviet Union.  While on this trip I encountered Soviets vets from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.  I saw how these Russian Afghan war vets were treated the same way as Vietnam vets were and how they suffered the same feelings of anxiety and feelings of insignificance as Vietnam vets.  They were also into heavy drinking and drugs to numb their feelings of being watched and judged by the Russian people.  When these Russian Afghanistan vets learned I was a Vietnam vet, there was a sense of shared experience, that sense of knowing without even having to talk about it.” 
 
I witnessed this.  It happened when we were in Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg.  One of the members of the support staff, who accompanied us throughout the trip, was walking with us.  We saw a shabby looking group of men in kind of a small courtyard squeezed between some run-down buildings.  Boris, the support guy, said, “They’re veterans from the Afghan war,” and he went over to them and told them Mike was a Vietnam vet. 
 
When these Russian Afghan war vets heard that, they rushed over and surrounded Mike.  And even though Mike didn’t speak Russian and they didn’t speak English, you could feel the intensity of emotions flowing between them.  They just swarmed around him, shaking his hand, hugging him, speaking to him in Russian.   One of them even gave Mike a Russian military belt, which I still have. 
 
I just felt I needed to go into more detail so that maybe you could correct it so it sounds closer to the real facts. 
 
Again, I so appreciated you being there yesterday.  Originally, I thought it would be me alone attending the service.  As I was driving home, I kept thinking as Mike was put to his final rest that he should be surrounded to such a loving group of friends who cared. 
 
Take good care.
 
Your friend, Maureen    
 






























9 comments:

davidseville said...

Moved my soul ...

Gene said...

A very heart felt story very well written, as usual. I appreciate the wonderful life they had together and could feel the love between them. Thanks Don for the good story. Gene

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I was touched.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Don for your beautiful farewell to Mike. I am forwarding it to all my friends who are veterans.

Peace and All Good,
John Z.

Anonymous said...

Very well done, sir! As a Viet vet this is special. Write on!!

Efrem said...

This was most touching and beautifully written Don. What a special person he was and not only that, he was married to an equally kind and caring person. I was deeply moved by the feelings they had towards one another. Thanks Don for another special moment.

Anonymous said...

A very nice follow up by Maureen, and a nice tribute to Don Ray..God Bless Gene Cecchini

David C LeSueur said...

Thanks, Don, for giving those of us who didn't serve in Vietnam a glimpse into your experience. You are a good man.

Dave

David C LeSueur said...

Thanks, Don, for giving those of us who didn't serve in Vietnam a glimpse into your experience. You are a good man.

Dave