Lessons from a patriot

Wally Mueller works to make sure the service of his comrades is never forgotten

May 27, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,special to the sun

Wally Mueller vividly remembers his buddies who were killed in combat. He thinks about them when he's driving his car, or marching with the American Legion color guard, or talking to children about patriotism and the meaning of Memorial Day.

"Memorial Day is a day set aside to remember all service members who have paid the ultimate price for their country," the decorated retired Army colonel said. "It's a day to honor those who made it possible for us to be free."

Although the 64-year-old Bel Air resident returned from Vietnam almost 40 years ago, his memories of the war are indelibly etched in his mind. In an effort to honor both living and fallen soldiers, he started a Veterans Day service and a Memorial Day educational program.

"We're not seeing a lot of young people at services for veterans," said Mueller, who was given the honorary rank of brigadier general by the state when he retired from active duty in November 2001.

"I believe that since the Vietnam War, the media has given more publicity to people against the wars than the people coming home. As a result, there is a generation out there that believes that service to their country is not an honorable thing and flag-waving is no longer fashionable."

David Merchant agrees. He oversees a national petition effort, which began in 2004, to restore the intended spirit of Memorial Day with measures such as moving it back to the original date of May 30 and doing away with the annual three-day weekend.

"Memorial Day was originally a sacred and solemn day," said Merchant, a resident of Rustin, La., where he also is working to establish a Memorial Day service.

"Today, a lot of people don't even know what it is. On the Weather Channel, the announcer told people to come on out to the beach and get the grills out for Memorial Day weekend. There was no mention of what Memorial Day is really all about."

In Maryland, Mueller's efforts to honor veterans began about 20 years ago with the founding of a Veterans Day service in Bel Air.

After years of observing sparse attendance by young people at Memorial Day ceremonies, Mueller, a former property and fiscal officer in charge of Army and Air National Guard equipment in Maryland, started a program comprising lessons on patriotism, Americanism and respect for fallen soldiers.

He delivers the presentation mostly at county schools and also talks about his military service.

The Guttenberg, N.J., native's military career spanned 37 years, beginning after he graduated from John Carroll University in Ohio in 1964 with a bachelor's degree in pre-medicine.

Because of his science background, Mueller was placed in the Medical Service Corps, he said. To earn an extra 90 cents a day, he volunteered for the Army's aviation program.

After graduation, he was sent to the 45th Air Ambulance Company based at Fort Bragg, N.C., where he learned battlefield triage.

From there, he was assigned to the 498th Medical Company (Air Ambulance).

In 1966, he was sent to Vietnam, where he spent a year flying a medevac helicopter, which was a new operation for the military.

"I had a dangerous job," Mueller said. "I was only 24 years old, and the only birthday I wanted to get to was my 25th."

Mueller said his job consisted of long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.

"The crew waited for calls to pick up wounded soldiers," he said. "Then I had to get to the designated location quickly. But some landing zones were still `hot.' Sometimes when we landed, the unit was still engaged with the enemy, and the person who shot the guy we were picking up could still be in the area."

One mission stands out from his myriad wartime experiences, he said.

En route to pick up a wounded soldier, Mueller was told to abort the trip because the soldier had died. Later that day, he received a call to pick up two other wounded soldiers, and on that trip Mueller spotted the dead soldier amid rice patties.

Although dead soldiers were typically transported in a different way, Mueller decided to pick him up. He had room, and he was there, he said.

"When the man was lifted off the ground, we heard a moan," Mueller said. "We cut open his poncho, and the soldier was still alive. And we kept him alive until we arrived at the hospital. I don't know what happened to him after that. I learned not to check on people after we dropped them off."

When he finished his tour, he had flown 593 combat hours and about 1,000 frontline medical evacuations, he said.

During his years of service, he received an Army Distinguished Service Medal, a Legion of Merit and a Bronze Star.

Mueller, who retired as an assistant director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency in January, thinks often of his fallen comrades. He has a constant reminder of one he was close to, Richard Meeghan, a former buddy from flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala.

After riding in Meeghan's green Ford Mustang, Mueller, who was 24 at the time, went to the post exchange in Vietnam and put down $100 on a 1967 Ford Mustang convertible that he was to pick up on his return to the United States.

A few weeks later, he ran into a man assigned to Meeghan's unit and, after bragging about his new car, learned that his friend had been killed. Mueller picked up the car, and drove it until it had 250,000 miles on it and was rusting away, he said.

He drove numerous other vehicles until 1994, when he purchased his second green Mustang.

"Sometimes when I'm by myself driving, I look over to the passenger seat and I tell Dicky that I'm doing all right down here, and I hope he's doing all right up there," Mueller said. "And then I tell him to keep a spot for me."

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