Girl's tribute earns a hero's thanks

Retired Marine gives poet his Silver Star

May 30, 1999|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Katie Daniels, 13, received a hero's medal this month for poetry.

The Silver Star, the third-highest military award designated solely for heroism in combat, was a gift from a Vietnam veteran grateful for Katie's tribute to his fallen comrades.

The paths of John R. Jones, a retired Marine master sergeant, and the Sykesville Middle School pupil, who wrote "The Memories of the Soldiers in the Vietnam War," crossed at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He was so impressed when Katie read her poem that he removed the medal from his cap and gave it to her.

"I didn't deserve it," said Katie. "He fought in Vietnam, and he thanked me for writing about it."

Jones, a career Marine who served three tours in Vietnam, earned the Silver Star after several battles near Khe Sanh.

"The medal is mine to give," he said. "Any military man who sees it will recognize it."

Now 67 and living in Jacksonville, N.C., Jones makes a pilgrimage to The Wall every May with about a dozen others, all members of In Country, a combat veterans group based in his hometown.

JoAnn Heller, Katie's teacher, invited the veterans to listen to the poem and the other tributes the seventh-grade pupils had prepared.

"I was really nervous reading for the veterans who fought there," Katie said. "But in the end, it really felt good. Everybody started crying."

The Wall is a place,

to sit and spend time,

Many answers to questions,

you'll surely find.

Jones said, "The poem came closer to the truth than all the experts have written about the war. Children have a way of stripping away all the false things."

In the more than 100 short lines, Katie writes that The Wall is a place for memories, respect and gratitude.

All died for our country,

fighting with pride,

It's hard to imagine,

so many have died.

She ends with:

Thanks to all,

that died for us.

You had our love,

and our trust.

The poem was childlike but perceptive, and "similar to poems written by people who were actually there," Jones said.

`Wrote from the heart'

After the reading, Raymond Byrnes, another member of the North Carolina veterans' group, offered the children "our insight into the war." The men answered questions about living conditions and food. Byrnes gave Katie a Vietnam Veterans pin and a service pin.

"The poem really hit all of us, " Byrnes said. "You could tell that she wrote from her heart. We all just wanted to give her something for all the thought she put into it."

A social studies unit on the Vietnam War culminates in the field trip. Before they go, Heller has her pupils study one chapter from "Shrapnels of the Heart," biographies of those who died in combat. Each pupil then finds that veteran's name on the wall, does a rubbing and leaves a tribute, usually a poem or a letter.

"The kids really take this activity seriously," Heller said. "They come away with a wonderful understanding."

Lou Ann Daniels, Katie's mother, grew up during the Vietnam War and appreciates the lessons her daughter has learned. "Kids today just don't realize what it was like having friends go to Vietnam. But this teacher has done such a good job," Daniels said.

Writing about The Wall was difficult, said Katie, but "seeing all those names of people who have died is really sad."

She plans to stay in touch with Jones. "If he ever wants his medal back, I will send it to him," she said.

Heller makes a book of the student tributes every year. Jones has a copy of the 1999 edition, with Katie's poem gracing the cover.

The children "are honoring our past," he said. "We can't let them forget. They are the ones who will keep the connection.

"When I look at them, I know it was all worth it," he said.

Pub Date: 5/30/99

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