Veteran plans to write book as 'roster of honor' for residents who served in Vietnam

November 13, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Every Nov. 11, Gary D. Jestes goes to a veteran's grave near his Manchester home.

"There is a name on a simple stone, which reads 'Killed in Vietnam,' " he said. "It reminds me how blessed I am. I came back."

Mr. Jestes, 44, also visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, called "The Wall" by many, and knows where the names of 17 Carroll County residents are etched.

When he is there -- often alone in the quiet of night -- he wonders "who knows what those thousands of guys could have done, if they had lived, like I did."

With the 1982 dedication of the most-visited monument in Washington, Mr. Jestes said, "America finally began to understand us. The spirit of those names calls out to you."

Now Mr. Jestes, who was awarded several combat medals from his tour of duty with the 101st Airborne Division, hopes to publish a book, a testimonial to the residents who, like him, served in the war that divided the country so deeply.

Through three years of research at the Historical Society of Carroll County, he has amassed the names of more than 700 Vietnam veterans from Carroll County.

"I want to show what kind of people we were and how we felt," he said. "The book would not be a personal memoir. We were all there, and we all have different stories."

The volume would be "much more than a series of names," he said.

Letters to and from home, pictures of young men in Army fatigues and recollections from a time many want to forget would fill his book.

"It will be like a roster of honor that veterans can show to their great-grandchildren one day," he said. "I want kids to be able to go to the Carroll County libraries and see a memorial book.

L "I know people in Carroll County care about their veterans."

tTC In the hours away from his job with the Social Security Administration, he has delved into the stories of Vietnam veterans and interviewed the families of those who did not survive. He said he "definitely" knows there are more local veterans than the 700 he has identified.

"Many died in combat, and many others died young, after they came home," he said. "My old unit has lost many.

"The stress from the war is hard to turn off. Maybe this book will finish their battles for them."

His efforts could culminate in a volume of reference for his own teen-age daughter and for future generations.

"Now is the time to remember," he said. "Years ago, nobody would listen. The country was split apart, and the vets were identified with the war."

He said he also tried to erase the memories of his year in Vietnam.

"I buried the whole thing, but now it's time to let future generations know the story from our point of view," he said. "I want to plant seeds of thought, especially in students today."

Mr. Jestes enlisted as a 19-year-old just after graduating from South Carroll High School.

"I didn't want to wait to be drafted," he said. "It was a matter of family tradition and honor to serve."

No yellow ribbons decorated his home in Sykesville.

"My sister was against the war and thought I shouldn't go," he said. "My mother broke down and cried. She thought I was doing something wrong. The whole community was vague about its support."

During basic training, his sergeant often bellowed, "You better be prepared. You're going to Nam, boy. Get your stuff together."

Six months later, in the dead of night, he arrived in Vietnam after a flight from Fort Dix, N.J. As a chaplain's assistant, he often went into the heat of battle to comfort wounded men.

After 25 years, questions still haunt him.

In 1971, he returned to his home in Sykesville, married and went to college. Whenever "the war was discussed, I was quiet," he said.

"I served my country without regret, and I believe it was right," he said. "I only wish that so many people didn't have to suffer for the sake of a cause. I have seen a lot of sorrow."

Mr. Jestes is working now to "leave a human part of Vietnam for the history books."

"Maybe, in the years ahead, America will be fascinated with our experience," he said. "It means something, even though we lost the war."

He knows some veterans will want nothing to do with the book, and he is letting everyone decide what contributions, if any, to make.

For many veterans, "It is still the '70s in their minds, and they oppose my book," he said.

Like many soldiers, he saved every letter during his year away from home. Many local veterans have donated copies of their letters for the book.

"Mail call showed us there was a sane world back there somewhere," he said. "Even the little details were so important."

He also has poignant letters written by soldiers to families whose sons died in combat.

Mr. Jestes has used his own money and free time to gather the information for his book. After nearly three years of research, most through the Historical Society, he is ready to put the book together.

He needs help with organization and with finances and is hoping for support from local veterans organizations.

He estimates the cost at about $5,000 and says more research would make his efforts as comprehensive as possible.

"I want area veterans who would like to add something to the book to get in touch with me," he said. "I want their memories."

At his 25-year South Carroll High School reunion, he knew that several alumni were Vietnam veterans, yet "there were no positive, proud statements about military services."

When he was a high school student in the 1960s, Vietnam was not part of the social studies curriculum. "Now they talk about it," he said.

Mr. Jestes has been a guest speaker at North Carroll High, where his daughter is a student, and he says he is willing to share his experiences with other schools, too.

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