War Story In Black And White

May 29, 1995|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

The sergeant was white, a ninth-grade dropout from the streets of Baltimore, who gave meaning to his troubled life earning five Purple Heart medals in Vietnam. His most dependable platoon member was a quiet, black infantryman from rural Harford County.

Thrown together halfway around the world in a bitter war, Army Sgt. Raymond Keefer and Spc. 4 Larry Robinson forged a combat-hardened brotherhood -- one tested when Specialist Robinson saved his friend's life on a hill near the Laotian border.

Despite the racial strife in parts of Vietnam and at home in 1971, they were inseparable. They would meet at night inside the sergeant's command armored personnel carrier (APC) -- illuminated by the eerie red glow of a night map-reading light -- and talk about plans to return to Maryland and work together for racial harmony.

"Me and Larry laid on ammo cans inside my APC and talked about all that before we drifted off to sleep," recalls Mr. Keefer, who now lives on the Eastern Shore. "We wanted to adopt a bunch of kids, show them that blacks and whites could love one another. It was like our only link to sanity."

But those battlefield dreams never materialized. As Mr. Keefer, seriously wounded, was lying in the hospital after that battle on Hill 383, he got the news: His savior had drowned while bathing in a river. Mr. Robinson died only two weeks before he was to have gone home.

During this Memorial Day holiday -- for the first time in 24 years -- Mr. Keefer talked again to his friend, now buried at St. Joseph's Cemetery near Cockeysville. He took with him a cross fashioned from bootlaces that Mr. Robinson gave him before he died.

On a pebbled path at the cemetery, Mr. Keefer recalls, "I wanted to escort Larry's body back home to his aunt who raised him, but I couldn't get out of the hospital.

"When I got home, I just couldn't go through that process of finding where Larry was buried. It had a lot to do with me being 20, a kid in charge of 56 guys in the platoon, a kid with a mortar, automatic weapons and Claymore mines. I was unable to handle the emotions of seeing Larry again . . .

"I think about him a lot, the whole year round. I'll have to bring my older son here and let him meet the guy who saved his father's life."

For any veteran, summoning private recollections on Memorial Day can be an "enormously difficult time," says Daniel T. Merlis, chief counselor at the city Vet Center.

"Things get locked up somewhere for years and for no apparent reason," Mr. Merlis says. It is not unusual, he says, for someone who served in World War II or the Korean War to suddenly recall a combat experience decades after it happened.

"Sometimes it's psychic defense until that veteran can deal with it," he says. "Other times, these memories just creep out and cause symptoms like insomnia, nightmares, anger, depression, an inability to tend to daily business. Either way, it is part of the healing process."

On that May morning in 1971, Mr. Keefer led his small Americal Division patrol as it snaked down Hill 383, heading for where a major branch of the Ho Chi Minh Trail entered South Vietnam from Laos. They were on Operation Lam Son 719 -- the South Vietnamese invasion of Laos -- and a half-mile from the border.

"We had come off the trail, and I was talking with another sergeant when the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] landed at our feet," Mr. Keefer recalls. "It threw me into the air, and I felt like I got smacked in the head with a brick. I could feel the hot metal burning my face and body. I yelled for my people to open fire."

Suddenly, the Americans and North Vietnamese were in a fierce firefight.

"I had called for a medic, but the next thing I knew Larry was lying next to me saying, 'Get up man.' He didn't have his weapon. I asked him why and he said it would get in the way when he carried me out," Mr. Keefer recalls.

Mr. Robinson shouldered the sergeant to safety. At the open door of a medical evacuation helicopter, he left Mr. Keefer with his familiar smile and these words: "Check you back in the States, man."

Two days later, Mr. Robinson died.

Informed of the accident, Mr. Keefer was crushed.

"I didn't want to come home, I felt like the whole thing came to an end right there," Mr. Keefer says. "I felt the war was so dirty and I was fried from it. Here was Larry, someone of great personal value . . . gone."

Mr. Keefer also felt guilty about his friend's drowning death because he had been teaching him to swim. "I tortured myself, it haunted me, when I wondered over the years if things would have been different if I wasn't in the hospital, if I had taught him better," he says.

Compared with the racial strife among soldiers in the rear areas of the combat zone in 1971, the relationship between Mr. Keefer and Mr. Robinson was an anomaly.

In the support units, where there was less risk of combat, black soldiers clashed with southern GIs displaying the Confederate flag on bunkers or guard towers. Back home, racial tension was high, too.

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