Monday, May 15, 2000

Honors sought for Marine

On missing 'Mayaguez' force

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COVINGTON — Twenty-five years ago today, more than 200 Marines landed on a Cambodian island to rescue the crew of the SS Mayaguez, which had been seized by the communist Khmer Rouge days before.

        Marines found the deserted merchant ship and heavily armed KhmerRouge soldiers. Heavy gunfire was exchanged and the Marines aborted the mission.

        A three-member machine gun crew, including Pfc. Gary Lee Hall, a Covington native, was left behind. A search of Koh Tang's beaches came up empty. The three are among 18 men listed as missing from the Mayaguez mission and are presumed dead.

        Today, confusion and rage over the aborted Mayaguez rescue have barely subsided.

        Members of Pfc. Hall's family are moved to tears of sorrow and anger that some Vietnam War veterans don't consider their lost relatives a victim of that conflict.

        “He was in Southeast Asia. He was killed serving his country. He was an American doing his job. He was there,” said brother Mike Hall, 38, of 1825 Garrard St. “You're putting your life on the line, but they're wanting to split hairs about it?”

        Gary Lee Hall has been awarded a Purple Heart. His name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and Vietnam memorials in Covington and Frankfort.

        Yet Vietnam Veterans of America, the congressionally chartered Vietnam veterans organization, has spent almost a decade trying to win greater honor for Pfc. Hall, his two companions, and men who survived the Mayaguez raid.

        The group wants official cutoff date extended to May 31, 1975 for those who could receive certain medical benefits and the Vietnam Service Medal.

        That medal has gone to individuals who served in Vietnam from July 3, 1965, to March 28, 1973, or for the same period in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand in direct support of Vietnam activity.

        The Mayaguez was seized 12 days after the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital. All 40 Mayaguez crew members were eventually released by the Khmer Rouge.

        Mayaguez “was part and parcel of the final chapter. A gesture of respect is really what it is,” Rick Weidman, VVA director of government relations, said.

        Steve Van Buskirk, spokesman for Kansas City, Mo.-based Veterans of Foreign Wars, praised those who participated in the Mayaguez venture.

        “It was significant because it was the last military action by American forces,” he said. “In some ways, it was a debacle. People died who shouldn't have died.”

        Allowing survivors to receive the Vietnam Service medal is another matter, he said, because those who served before 1973 had more harrowing experiences.

        “It is very important in the fact that it identifies me as someone who actually served in harm's way during a very difficult war,” said Mr. Van Buskirk, a medal winner. “If I could pick out incidents and individuals (to receive it), I would. (But) to include (Pfc. Hall) is to include people that quite frankly shouldn't be included.”

        The American Legion, the largest U.S. veterans organization, with 2.8 million members, recog nizes May 7, 1975, as the end of the Vietnam period of war.

        The Halls rarely have energy to quibble. First, there are memories to overcome:

        ãOf military officials visiting their home to announce that Pfc. Hall, a 1974 Holmes High School graduate, was missing in action and presumed dead.

        ãOf government letters — full sentences and paragraphs blacked out — to explain the Mayaguez incident.

        Pfc. Hall would have been 43 today and most likely a career military man, his relatives say.

        “I would just like to have him buried on his own soil,” said sister Janet Hall Meadows of Tolles boro. “There's nothing I can do. There's just not been any closure for me.”

        Brother David Hall, 48, breaks into tears over the phone. An Army veteran, just like their father, Seldon, he remembers learning of the Mayaguez incident from a TV news broadcast while stationed in West Germany. Soon after, he received a telegram that said his brother was missing.

        He said his brother deserves the same recognition as other Vietnam veterans. “He was called upon by the president,” he said. “He performed his job to the best of his ability.”


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