“Depressing” is how Sergeant Major Charles Payne, 73, described Veterans Day.
That’s because while the annual holiday honors U.S. veterans of armed conflicts around the world, for some vets, the hardest part is remembering their buddies.
“It’s an honorable day, but it’s like old wounds are springing forth and coming back. You go to see the names of people you knew,” said Payne, 73, of South Jersey, who served three tours as a Ranger in Vietnam.
“A lot of them died and a lot of them didn’t get what they were due.”
Payne experienced the unimaginable firsthand — like fighting with a group of 140 American soldiers that within a week saw their ranks decimated to 20.
“But we were winning,” he said gruffly.
Payne had more near-death encounters than most people can imagine — like when he and other soldiers disagreed over how to best cross a valley.
Payne refused to go in, and took his men over a rope bridge across. The soldiers who went into the valley all died.
“All of them that went down there, all of them got killed. All of them got ambushed. It was a death trap,” he said. “You don’t move like that at night! I’m a ranger. We know better.”
An All-American football player and a Golden Gloves boxer, Payne had a shot at playing with the New York Giants — but turned it down to go to war because he had promised a friend they would enlist together.
Payne went on to receive four Bronze Stars — a medal for heroism awarded to soldiers in rough-combat situations who fight their way out, he said.
The holiday also takes its toll on the family members of fallen soldiers, like Charles Strange, father of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Strange — a SEAL who was one of 30 SEALs killed when their helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan on August 6, 2011.
“It’s been emotional, real emotional,” Charles Strange said of the holiday. “When it’s your son, some days are real bad and some days are just bad.”
Strange copes with his loss by organizing retreats for families of fallen soldiers through the Michael Strange Foundation.
Last month, the group brought together 50 families forworkshops and time with grief counselors, as well as a sense of community. The Bolero Hotel donated a floor of rooms for the event.
“One mother danced. She said it was the first time she’s danced since her son died — five years,” Strange said. “One guy, 16 months since his son died, said ‘I’m not alone.'”
Across Philadelphia, veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea and World War II were honored on Veterans Day — as was the Tomb of the Unknown Solider of the American Revolution.
“We all just did our part,” said retired Capt. Terry Williamson, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. “I did my duty and that’s thanks enough.”