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A 50-year-old battle in Vietnam holds lessons about sacrifice and endurance for a nation locked down during the coronavirus pandemic.
The siege of Dak Seang began on April 1, 1970, and raged for 38 horrific days. The battle was a coordinated surprise attack by enemy soldiers against a tiny indigenous village in Vietnam’s Central Highlands region. Dak Seang was fatefully located 12 kilometers from the strategic communist supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The village never fell during the siege, and the battle was ultimately considered a win for Allied forces, despite high casualties.
Gary Beikirch, a resident of Greece, N.Y., today, was a Green Beret Army medic during the siege. Beikirch, then just 22, had been sent to the village along with 11 other Green Berets to act as advisers for the fighters of an oppressed tribe known as the Montagnards. Beikirch was head medic, responsible not only for the health of the Green Berets and 400 Montagnard troops, but also for the 2,300 civilians in the village — mostly the local troops’ children, wives and relatives.
Compared to the complex reasons for fighting in Vietnam, the reasons for defending Dak Seang were arguably more black and white. The Montagnards were no friends of the Communists and welcomed everyone who would help defend their homes. The North Vietnamese Army — professional soldiers trained by the Russians and Chinese — despised the Montagnards and considered them an inferior race needing extermination. Viet Cong soldiers, communists from the south who allied with the NVA, were known to slink into Montagnard villages and commit atrocities. If the Green Berets hadn’t come, the communists would not have simply absorbed the Montagnards into their autocratic political system. They would have wiped them off the map.
Beikirch had a personal reason to be involved. An elite Special Operations medic who’d grown up in a troubled home, he’d never wanted to fight in Vietnam. But as he acclimated to the Montagnard way of life, he fell in love with the villagers and their culture of friendship and acceptance. The jungle became his new home. He describes how he wasn’t in Vietnam for Nixon or Kissinger. His motivation was to protect the people he’d come to care for deeply.
At dawn, April 1, 1970, the barrage began. Some 10,000 enemy soldiers had secretly encircled Dak Seang in darkness. Heavy artillery pummeled the village while buildings exploded in flames. Beikirch didn’t hesitate. He ran into the heat of the battle to provide medical aid and simultaneously help defend Dak Seang.
Beikirch quickly took three hits by shrapnel and bullets, in his abdomen, right hip and spine, and was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Hastily bandaged and laid aside on a makeshift stretcher, he could see bombs exploding throughout the camp. It was then that Beikirch made the decision that would come to define much of his life. Still under heavy fire, he knew the people inside Dak Seang needed help. But he couldn’t move his legs. So he called over two helpers and uttered two words that need to ring in renown throughout history:
For hours, the paralyzed medic was carried around the battlefield from one wounded person to the next. Dragged, really. His legs unable to work. His mind, hands and indomitable spirit still able. That’s how Beikirch administered aid. He stopped only when he, at last, collapsed from blood loss, fell unconscious and was medevaced to safety.
Beikirch’s experiences during the siege would affect his life forever. After recovering in an American hospital, Beikirch returned to university where, like so many of his generation of military personnel, he was harassed for being a veteran. The pressure mounted and Beikirch dropped out.
Haunted by memories of the war and harassed by fellow citizens, he grabbed the journals of Thoreau, hiked far out into the Northern Appalachians, and sought refuge in a cave. There, inside a fortress of wilderness seclusion, Beikirch endured frigid winters in the snow and ice, bathed in streams, and shouted to the walls about all the dismay inside of him.
While living in the cave, he hiked down to the nearby town where he kept a post office box. A note informed him that an important message was coming and that he needed to be at a payphone the next evening at a specific time. The phone call turned out to be from the Pentagon informing him that he was receiving the Medal of Honor. Overnight, Beikirch literally went from living in a cave to receiving the nation’s highest and most prestigious military distinction for acts of valor.
After receiving the medal, Beikirch returned to his cave. He ended up living there for more than 18 months until the love of a young woman brought him out for good. Eventually, Beikirch healed in spirit and assimilated back into society. He married and earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York Brockport. Throughout his career, he served as a counselor in public schools, hospitals, prisons and the Veterans Outreach Center.
But it would take a long time before Beikirch would wear or display the medal. Plenty of other people had given their lives at Dak Seang. Who was he to be singled out for honor? It wasn’t until Beikirch realized the medal wasn’t about him that he stopped considering whether he deserved it. He saw how the medal represented something far greater than just one person. It stood for the heroics and selflessness of many, including the helpers who’d dragged him around the battlefield.
Beikirch, chaplain of the Medal of Honor Society today, has long since given up trying to forget the siege. He knows the scars of Vietnam will always remain. Yet he has used his scars to develop a passion for helping people heal. He describes how he will always treasure his time with the Montagnards, knowing they helped provide him with a foundation of love and acceptance. And he wears the Medal of Honor proudly, in remembrance of a forgotten battle and in tribute to something far greater than himself. With the hope of encouraging anyone who’s ever fought through a battle or sheltered in a cave.