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Guest column | Susan Arnett

To a child, soldier's first heroic act was kindness

The news came 39 years ago. You still can find evidence of it on the Web. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Defense (Public Affairs) put out a press release dated June 17, 1969.

The first name on it was the one that mattered. U.S. Army Sgt. Norman W. Teeter of Russellville, Ark. It's under the heading: Killed as a result of hostile action. He is one of 56 casualties announced that day.

My father managed a Southern Farmers' Co-op many years ago before we moved to the farm. He had several male students from Arkansas Tech who worked part time for him in the warehouse loading feed and supplies for customers. From what I seem to remember, many young people were able to avoid the draft because of student deferments.

I will always remember the day Norman Teeter, one of those young students, told me he had enlisted to go to Vietnam. I was 5 years old at the time.

All I knew was that when I grew up, I was going to marry Norman. I felt like a 5-year-old brat, but Norman was always nice to me. I had no concept of Vietnam.

It was a rainy, dreary day. I was back in the warehouse with maybe three of these college kids. There were no customers so the guys were either sitting or standing around. Norman was sitting on a bag of feed. I knew the atmosphere was tense. Usually when there were no customers, the guys would be wrestling and horsing around. It was very quiet on this day.

I crawled up in Norman's lap and asked him what was wrong. He gave me a big hug and said, "Nothing." I asked him again, and he told me he was going away. I asked him when he would be back. He said he didn't know.

Me: "Okay. So how long will you be gone?"

Norman: "Honey, I don't know."

Me: "Can I go with you?"

Norman: "No. I need to know you're here safe with your family. After all, you are part of why I'm going."

I don't remember anything else about that day except for the other guys saying stuff like, "Why did you sign up? You don't need to go. Are you nuts?"

I just remember looking at his face that was staring out into the rain. I never could see what he was looking at. I also looked at the other guys who were not making eye contact with him for some reason.

I remember being told that Norman was killed two days after I turned 6 years old in June 1969. They told me he died a hero. I kept asking what that meant. The most anyone ever told me was that he died trying to save some of his friends.

I got to go to The Wall for the first time when I was in my late 20s. I etched his name on a piece of paper. His name was very close to the top so I laid on the ground and reached down to do the etching.

I told him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him — and how thankful I was to him. I did another etching to take back to his mother, who was a retired teacher from our local school system. I don't even remember now if I was ever even able to give it to her.

I may not have understood the world's concept of what a hero was. I just knew that Norman already was a hero to the 5-year-old that I was. Even at his young age, he had an amazing capacity for love, compassion and gentleness.

Susan Arnett is president of the United Way of Pasco County.

To a child, soldier's first heroic act was kindness 06/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:00pm]
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