Memorial Day honors real memories of real heroes

Published 12:50 pm Saturday, May 27, 2023

By Steve Stricker

I was drafted into the U.S. Army immediately after graduating college and was assigned to the 18th Engineer Brigade Headquarter Company, Dong Ba Thin on the South China Sea, across the bay from the large Cam Ranh Air Base.

I thankfully survived my first baptism of fire from a massive rocket, mortar, sapper attack that made all the news at home – should have been dead right there. Two days later, I teamed with a liaison, great guy and hero Major Joe Cabrina, who was attached to Long Binh, 14 miles from Saigon and the USAECV (United States Army Engineer Command Vietnam) July 1969-August 1970.

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Having my own Jeep and office in the Long Binh large headquarters complex and being the most eclectic solider in Vietnam, I would pick up Major Cabrina once a week at either the airport at Long Binh, Bien Hoa or Tanh San Nhut in Saigon.

Several times the last flight back to Long Binh had firefights all along the way, with helicopter gunships letting loose everything they had directly over my head. The convoy was told to wait, and was wiped out.

Major Joe, with charts and graphs, briefed hero Major General John Dillard, chief of USAECV, on tactics the VC were using in the Dong Ba Thin area to mine roads, set booby traps, etc.

General Dillard was a great guy and his Command Sergeant Major, hero Robert W. Elkay, became a very close friend of mine. Being attached to USAECV meant that when not working for Major Cabrina, I pulled guard duty all night every five days in our perimeter bunker. A few months before in the huge Tet Offensive, 14 VC were killed and we experienced firefights every time out.

The day after my May 10th birthday, a few weeks from going home, I drove officers friends in my Jeep to a firebase about a meter from the Cambodian border that had been overrun by the VC. The entire base was blown up and still smoking, many were killed, including the commanding officer. It was reported that explosive charges were placed on his bunk while he slept.

On the way, we spent a harrowing night at Cu Chi above then-unknown VC tunnels, and were attacked that night with rockets and mortars. We got no sleep and there was monsoon rain. I had a M16 on my chest and two clips in my belt.

The next day, with snipers everywhere, we wore heavy flak jackets and steel helmets, and drove to the firebase. Survivors with “thousand-mile stares” attended the commanding officer’s funeral with a priest standing in a sandbagged archway. In front of him the iconic M16 bayonet in the ground and helmet on top. We were on the Cambodia border and a truck with an M60 machine gun kept guard.

When General Dillard walked past, we said hello and I took his picture with my Cannon 35mm – it was perhaps the last photo anyone ever took of him. On the way back to Long Binh his helicopter was hit with enemy fire and he and nine of my friends onboard were killed. Only my buddy Command Sergeant Major survived.

We were told his legs and one arm were blown off and when they found him he was so tough that he was still crawling.

Never forget those lost in combat and those returned home whose war is only a memory away.

Steve is an Army Vietnam Vet, Oxford resident, Campus administrator, teacher, counselor, received his Ph.D. in Counseling from Ole Miss, and can be reached at