Legion Riders participate in a vigil at the Vietnam Memorial Wall during Rolling Thunder events in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Noel St. John)

Three fallen heroes' names remembered

Three names are printed on the windshield of Pat Kain’s motorcycle: the names of two men and one woman killed in action while serving America. Above their names is the phrase, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All.”

Kain is one of many motorcyclists who gathered at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., on May 23 to make the Run for The Wall into Washington and to take part in a candlelight vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

A Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam and retired from the Tennessee Army National Guard, Kain says he carries the names “to honor them. I know their family members, guys that I knew, that I served with. And it was my way of just saying, ‘Thank you for what your family has done.’ That’s the reason we do this.”

The three names are: Joel R. Step, U.S. Navy, killed in action on Feb. 10, 1970 in Vietnam; Billie-Jean Grinder, Tennessee Army National Guard, killed in action on Feb. 21, 2010 in Iraq; and Michael E. Koonce, U.S. Army, killed in action on Sept. 14, 1969 in Vietnam.

“Joel is the brother of a good friend of mine, Jim Step, who is a retired master sergeant from the Tennessee Army National Guard,” Kain says. Grinder was “a chopper pilot and her chopper went down. Her husband is still a pilot with the Guard – he also served in Iraq.” Koonce’s brother Donnie used to be Kain’s boss and is a retired colonel and chief of staff of the Tennessee Guard. “I did this for those families that lost their loved ones, who gave all.”

A member of American Legion Post 88 in Donelson, Tenn., Kain took part in the candlelight vigil with two fellow post members and Vietnam War veterans, Phil Friedli and Chuck Pippin.

“The Vietnam veterans never got a welcome home,” Friedli says, who served in the war as an Army corpsman with the 68th Medical Group. But in remembrance, “we ride for the Run for The Wall and this is my fourth year. It’s probably the most healing thing that a Vietnam veteran can do, to be able to see some of the family members and talk to them.

“I’ve done Patriot Guard missions where we’ve brought the remains home, and do the flag lines, and be there for the families, and it’s just something that is close to us as Vietnam vets. Very close.”

Pippin says he is “a newbie” making his first Run for The Wall. “I’ve been back 45 years, and I’ve put this off for too long, and they talked me into coming this time, so I’m here. We just can’t forget them. That’s why the names are on The Wall, they’re cut in stone so they’ll last many, many generations.”

An Army veteran, Pippin served in-country soon after the North Vietnamese Army launched its Tet Offensive in January 1968. He stayed in Vietnam until 1971, then served three more years of active duty and another 12 in the Army reserve."We should never forget those that sacrificed for us. It’s just too important,” Pippin says. “I lost a lot of friends. I’m going to see their names for the first time.”

Friedli says the annual Run for The Wall and the Rolling Thunder ride into Washington were started to raise public awareness that many of America’s servicemembers are still missing in action. “And we need to do something about it," he says. "We need to force our senators and our state representatives to get behind this and spend some money to find these people. We’re having other countries find them for us and bring them back to us.”

The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) is responsible for the recovery of servicemembers’ remains in overseas locations. Last February, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered consolidation of JPAC into a more accountable unit after numerous reports emerged about misconduct and poor management at the command.

With more than 83,000 American servicemembers still missing in action since World War II, Congress recently tasked JPAC to recover and account for 200 POW/MIAs annually by next year. Yet the effects of sequestration may stop JPAC from achieving that goal.

“The Vietnam veterans never got a welcome home,” Friedli says, “and we still have MIA’s out there. The government is failing the families and everybody else who are trying to get them back and bring them home.”

Kain says he doesn’t want any praise for his Vietnam service, although “it would have been nice at the time.” But now is the time that Americans have the chance “to honor the ones who really, really deserve it – the guys who really sacrificed, lost some limbs and gave so much, a lot more than I did.”

At events such as the Rolling Thunder ride and Run for The Wall, Friedli says, “You see the patriotism and you see the support, which you don’t always hear about or see in the news. And I think that makes us all feel a lot better about what we’re trying to do.”

Besides the three names on his windshield, Kain has a sticker on his motorcycle with photo of Bowe Bergdahl, a POW in Afghanistan since June 2009, “to make people aware of him, and I’m going to leave it on there until I hear that the boy made it home. Hopefully, some day, I’ll hear he got home safe. I don’t know the boy, and I don’t know his family, but he’s still a soldier. My son served in Iraq two tours. He got back okay, so hopefully this kid will, too.”

Heading for his first-ever trip to The Wall, Pippin got on his motorcycle. “We can’t forget the guys who died defending this country. Right or wrong, they died for our country. We can’t forget them. As long as we can remember them, they’re still here. Never forget them.”