VETERANS DAY 1996 // "Greater love hath no man than this...'

Published Dec. 11, 1996|Updated July 6, 2006

They didn't have much in common. Fred was a white kid from New York who listened to Elvis and the Stones. Robert was a black kid from Florida whose taste ran more toward the Temptations and the Four Tops.

Fred wasn't particularly religious. Robert drew a picture of Jesus and tacked it above his bunk.

Early on the morning of March 5, 1969, they found themselves crouching together in a ditch in Quang Tri, in the northern most province of South Vietnam, just south of the Demilitarized Zone. Fred Ostrom was the radio operator in a Marine Corps reconnaissance team. Robert H. Jenkins Jr. was the unit's point man.

"I didn't know Robert at all at first," Ostrom remembered. "He went to 'Nam in June of '68, and I didn't get there until September. We spent seven months together, but I wasn't any closer to him than anybody else in the unit.

"I knew he wanted to build a house when he got back home," Ostrom added. "He was always drawing pictures of what he wanted it to look like.

"I guess we couldn't have been any more different."

The 10 men of Charlie Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, were dug in on top of an old artillery base. They had heard the enemy moving through the bush during the night, and knew they were close.

Just before dawn, a reinforced platoon of about 100 North Vietnamese Army regulars stormed the base, using small arms, machine guns and mortars. Jenkins and Ostrom returned fire. Surrounded and vastly outnumbered, the Marines fought back.

"But the NVA worked their way close enough to start throwing grenades," Ostrom said. "I went over to my hole with Robert. The first couple of grenades got our lieutenant and he was killed.

"Then a grenade came in and I caught shrapnel in my left arm and it broke in four places. I also got shot through the knee. Then another grenade came in."

Ostrom couldn't run, and Jenkins knew it.

So he pushed Ostrom to the ground and leaped on top of him to shield him from the explosion.

"I don't remember much after that," Ostrom said, "except somebody saying something about how Robert had put himself between me and the grenade. I got most of the details later."

Helicopter gunships finally arrived and kept the North Vietnamese at bay long enough so that the Marines could be airlifted.

Of the 10 men in the unit, three were killed and six were wounded.

One of the dead was Jenkins.

Ostrom was flown to Da Nang and then to a naval hospital on Long Island, N.Y. It took him more than a year to recover.

As a result of their defense of the base, every man in the unit was decorated. The men of Charlie Company were awarded two silver stars, 12 Purple Hearts and a Navy Cross.

And Robert H. Jenkins Jr., the 20-year-old kid from tiny Interlachen, Fla., who loved Motown and the Bible, was posthumously awarded the highest military honor bestowed by the United States _ the Medal of Honor. At the request of his family, Jenkins was buried in his hometown.

As for Ostrom, when he was ready to go home, home wasn't ready for him. Anti-war sentiment in America was strong, and Vietnam vets were villains.

So Ostrom learned it was best not to talk about the war.

"I didn't even put on my job applications that I was in Vietnam," he said. "But you know, I've been to the Vietnam memorial in Washington five times. . . . and I must have tons of rubbings from it _ Robert and Peter Dewilde and Lt. Ferguson."

His voice trailed off.

Ostrom landed a job as an accountant for Bausch & Lomb, got married and started a family. For 16 years until his retirement, he kept a picture of Jenkins on his desk.

And when a middle school in Interlachen was named after Jenkins, Ostrom was as proud as anyone.

"I've been corresponding with the kids at the school for five years now," Ostrom said. "That seems to help a lot. Those kids are great. I probably get three to four letters a week from them.

"My own kids know nothing about Vietnam. I don't think my wife knew much about what happened until the people from Jenkins Middle School contacted me."

Ostrom had put off visiting Jenkins' grave because he wasn't sure how Jenkins' family would react.

"I must have made plans four or times to go down and visit them. But I just chickened out. I was afraid they'd be upset that I came back and Robert didn't."

But in March 1995, on the 26th anniversary of Jenkins' heroic act, the time seemed right. Ostrom flew to Florida and met with Jenkins' family, including his mother, Willie Mae.

"They treated me like family," Ostrom said. "They asked me all about Robert and made me feel right at home."

It took Ostrom two hours to find the old Sister Spring Cemetery _ a small clearing, about an acre or two, that's lined with scrub oaks and pines. It's down a dirt road, and marked only by a small wooden sign. Jenkins and several members of his family are buried there.

When Ostrom finally located Jenkins' grave, he saw something that made his heart sink. The headstone was gray with soot, there were only patches of grass, and fire ant mounds dotted the plot.

Jenkins' grave looked no different from any other.

"The only bright spot was the flowers the kids from the school had laid there," Ostrom said. "And I thought, "Here lies a Medal of Honor winner.' It was totally inexcusable."

Ostrom called a local VFW organization, the media and politicians. He was told Sister Spring was a private cemetery and nothing be could be done.

He began to wonder if the color of Jenkins' skin was the reason no one seemed to care.

"I was just trying to embarrass people into doing something, and nobody seemed to be embarrassed," Ostrom said. "There are only 27 black Medal of Honor recipients, and Robert should be a treasure to the community. Those kids have so few decent role models, and even though Robert is dead, he can still help."

After almost a year of working the phones and writing letters, Ostrom contacted the Medal of Honor Society, which put him in touch with Carlos Rainwater and Cat Mills of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs.

As word spread of Ostrom's effort to restore Jenkins' grave, the response became overwhelming. The VA Regional office in St. Petersburg, the Florida National Cemetery, veterans' organizations throughout the state, and the people of Interlachen offered to pitch in to help clean up the grave, replace the headstone, and host a rededication ceremony Nov. 11. Veterans Day.

"I got a call yesterday from a man in his 80s," Mills said. "He was in tears, he was so moved. He kept asking how he could help. Other people are calling and asking if they can bring garden tools to help clean up the cemetery.

"So many people have put aside their prejudices and pitched in. I think I'll almost be sad when this whole thing is over."

Ostrom, who is 46 and walks with a limp _ a reminder of the bullet that went through his leg _ is trying to make sure people won't forget Jenkins. Although he is living on a fixed income now, Ostrom is starting a memorial award at the middle school in Jenkins' honor. Every year, $100 savings bonds will be awarded to three students based on scholarship and citizenship.

When several of the Marines Ostrom served with found out he was doing all this _ starting a scholarship and traveling to Florida to restore Jenkins' grave _ they sent him a check to cover his airfare and his hotel.

"We all counted on each other over there," Ostrom said. "And with Robert, when it came down to the nitty-gritty, he was there for us."

There isn't a day that goes by that Ostrom doesn't think about Jenkins.

"I have a son and a daughter," Ostrom said, "and if you think about it, Robert saved their lives, too. He didn't just save one person on March 5, 1969.

"He saved my whole family."

Standing in the middle of the only intersection in town, a half-dozen members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars were collecting donations. They were mostly middle-age men _ men about Ostrom's age. It was Sunday, and the church crowd would mean good business.

Ostrom lit a Kool. These were probably the same men, he said, who wouldn't help him at first.

But that didn't matter now, he said. It was in the past. The cemetery was just a few miles up ahead.

As he rode along, Ostrom thought about the other Marines in his unit. Only five of the 10 men on the hill are still alive. Danny Tirado was killed in action two months after Jenkins died, and Larry Harrod committed suicide four years ago.

Ostrom watched the trees and pastures go by. "We're still losing people," he said.

When he got to the cemetery, Ostrom nodded approvingly as he approached Jenkins' plot. The weeds and ant hills were gone. And so was the old headstone.

In its place was a special Medal of Honor headstone, donated by the National Cemetery, and at the foot of his grave was a second stone, donated by several veterans' groups.

Finally, Ostrom said, it looked like someone special was buried here.

"This is nice," Ostrom said. "This is very nice."

A grave cover, donated anonymously, will be put in place today. So that weeds won't ever grow on Jenkins' grave again. The inscription on the cover is from John 15:13.

Greater love hath no man than this _ that he lay down his life for his friend.

After a little while, it was time to go.

Ostrom said the town is planning a big ceremony at Jenkins' grave today. There will be remarks from a Medal of Honor recipient, the mayors of Interlachen and Palatka, members of Jenkins' family, and students from Robert H. Jenkins Jr. Middle School.

And there will be a marching band, a 21-gun salute, and a student from Interlachen High will play taps.

Ostrom will say a few words. He wrote down what he wants to say; he's just not sure he'll be able to get through it.

"I've been thinking about that a lot," he said as he walked back to the car. "I'm a big, 'ol gruff SOB, but I know I'm going to have a tough time with this.

"I think I'll just be extremely proud and happy to see this done for Robert."