It’s Better To Give

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Head
  • 509th Comptroller Squadron
There's an old saying - 'tis better to give, than to receive - this time of year it seems to be more prevalent. Oh sure we have Angel trees, food pantries, and the bell-ringers to remind us to give. And that is great. But what about the rest of the year? It is the small things we do year-round that lend itself to the success of the mission. Captain Sam Bird represents the true spirit of giving, putting others first, and blessing us with a true gift....his life.

The Courage of Sam Bird
By B.T. Collins

I met Capt. Samuel R. Bird on a dusty road near An Khe, South Vietnam, one hot July day in 1966. I was an artillery forward observer with Bravo Company, I was filthy, sweaty, and jaded by war, and I thought, "Oh, brother, get a load of this". Dressed in crisply starched fatigues, Captain Bird was what we called squared away. 

That hot and dangerous July, I was overdosed on adventure, keenly interested in survival and very fond of large rocks and deep holes. Bird was my fourth company commander, and my expectations were somewhat cynical when he called all his officers and NCOs together. "I understand this company has been in Vietnam almost a year and has never had a party," he said. "The men are going to have a party, and they're not going to pay for it. Do I make myself clear?" A party for the "grunts" was the first order of business! We all chipped in to get food and beer for about 160 men. The troops were surprised almost to the point of suspicion - who, after all, had ever done anything for them? But that little beer and bull session was exactly what those war-weary men needed. Its effect on morale was profound. I began to watch our new captain more closely. 

Bird and I were the same age, 26, but eons apart in everything else. He was from the sunny heartland of Kansas, I from the suburbs of New York City. He prayed every day and was close to his God. My faith had evaporated somewhere this side of altar boy. I was a college dropout; he had graduated from The Citadel. 

If ever a man looked like a leader, it was Sam Bird. He was tall and lean, with penetrating blue eyes. Our outfit was helicoptered to a mountain outpost to prepare a position for others to occupy. We dug trenches, filled sandbags, strung wire under a blistering sun. It was hard work, and Sam was right there pitching in with the men. A colonel who was supposed to oversee the operation remained at a shelter, doing paper work. Sam looked at what his troops had accomplished, then, red-faced, he strode over to the colonel's sanctuary. We couldn't hear what he was saying, but suddenly the colonel found time to inspect the fortifications and thank the men for a job well done. Not a good way to move up in the Army. Such incidents were not lost on the men of Bravo Company. 

During the monsoon season we had to occupy a landing zone. The torrential, wind-driven rains had been falling for weeks. Like everyone else, I sat under my poncho in a stupor, wondering how much of the wetness was rainwater and how much was sweat. 

Suddenly I saw Sam, Mr. Spit and Polish, with nothing on but his olive-drab under shorts and his boots. He was digging a drainage ditch down the center of the camp. Slowly and sheepishly we emerged from under our ponchos, with shovels in hand, we began helping "the old man" get the ditch dug. We got the camp tolerably dried out and with that one simple act transformed our morale. 

He was the kind of guy whose eyes would mist during the singing of the National Anthem. Sam figured patriotism was just a natural part of being an American. But he knew that morale was a function not so much of inspiration as of good boots, dry socks, extra ammo and hot meals. Sam's philosophy was to put his troops first. His men ate first; he ate last. Instead of merely learning their names, he made it a point to know the men. He did this by looking them in the eyes to see "How they were doing." 

An officer once told me, "Sam can tear a man down till his ears burn, and the next minute that same guy is eager to follow him into hell." But he never chewed out a man in front of his subordinates. Sam wouldn't ask his men to do anything he wasn't willing to do himself. He dug his own foxholes. He never gave lectures on appearance, but even at God forsaken outposts, he would set aside a few ounces of water from his canteen to shave. His uniform, even if it was jungle fatigues, would be as clean and neat as he could make it. Soon All of Bravo Company had a reputation for looking sharp. 

One sultry and miserable day on a dirt road at the base camp, he took out a bunch of 
Combat Infantry Badges, signifying that a soldier has paid his dues under fire, looked everyone in the eyes and told them how proud he was of them, and he presented one to each of the men. There wasn't a soldier there who would have traded that moment on the road for some parade-ground ceremony. That was the way Sam Bird took care of his soldiers, respect every person's dignity, lead by example, reward performance. But Sam had another lesson to teach, a lesson on courage. 

Orders came down to Bravo to lead an airborne assault on a North Vietnamese regimental head quarters. Sam's helicopter was about to touch down at the attack point when it was ripped by enemy fire. Slugs shattered his left ankle and right leg. Another struck the left side of his head, carrying off almost a quarter of his skull. His executive officer, Lt. Dean Parker, scooped Sam's brains back into the gaping wound. Nearly a year later, I finally caught up with Sam at the VA medical Center in Memphis TN. Seeing him I had to fight back tears. The wiry, smiling soldier was blind in his left eye. Surgeons had removed metal shards and damaged tissue from deep within his brain, and he had been left with a marked depression on the left side of his head. The old clear voice of command was slower now. 

Sam, married to his old school sweetheart, soon moved back to Kansas. In 1972 they built a house like Sam had dreamed of--red brick, with a flag-pole out front. He had developed the habit of addressing God as "Sir" and spoke to him often. He never asked to be healed, and at every table grace, he thanked God for sending him Annette, his wife, and for "making it possible for me to live at home in a free country." 

In 1976, Sam traveled to The Citadel for his 15th class reunion. The school's president proceeded to thank him for all he did. With pride, Sam looked at him with those steeling blue eyes and said, "Sir, it was the least I could do, I have friends who didn't come back, I'm enjoying the freedoms they died for." 

On October 18, 1984, after 17 years, Sam's body couldn't take any more. On the day of his funeral, his old exec Dean Parker, and I went to the funeral home to make sure everything was in order. As Dean straightened the brass on Sam's uniform, I held my captain's hand and looked into his face no longer filled with pain, longing to see his eyes. I thought about how unashamed Sam always was to express his love for his country, how sunny and unaffected he was in his devotion to his men. I ached that I had never told him what a fine soldier and man he was. I'll never forget those steel blue eyes, but more important I'll never forget how he would always look in the eyes of every soldier in Bravo Company and ask, "How are you doing", and really mean it.

Chances are you have seen Sam Bird. You see he was the tall officer in charge of the casket detail at the funeral of President John F. Kennedy. 

Now that is a reason to celebrate -- not only this season, but all year long!