MEN OF OLIVE COMPANY; FOUR SOLDIERS SURVIVED VIETNAM BECAUSE MILTON OLIVE
Tribune, 12 May 2002
other guys who came back to their Chicago neighborhood on leave couldn't
wait to snatch off their uniforms and run the streets one last time before
shipping out to Vietnam. Not Milton "Skipper" Olive. The kid was
so proud he practically slept in his.
get up for breakfast and there was Skipper in his uniform, buttering his
toast. You'd say goodnight and there he was, nodding off on the sofa in
his Army greens, the shadow of a smile marching across his face. Hut, two,
doubt he would have worn his uniform out for a night on the town, but his
father, Big Milton, kept him close to home. Milton was just 17.
an only child, was "indulged," to put it politely. He got new
bicycles for his birthday and cameras for Christmas. At family gatherings,
when his cousins were dressed in jeans and t- shirts, he was often decked
out in a suit that matched his dad's.
it surprised his cousins that he had enlisted and become, of all things, a
paratrooper. My goodness. He wasn't 6 feet tall standing on a stepladder.
His rifle and rucksack probably weighed as much as he did.
True, he had always been on the thin side. But he had also displayed, from
his first breath, what folks called grit. His mother, Clara Lee, died four
hours after delivering him. The doctors didn't think her fragile baby boy
would live more than a day or two.
But he lived: 18 years, 11 months and 15 days.
Then on Oct. 22, 1965, ambushed in a Vietnam jungle, Milton L. Olive III
threw himself on a hand grenade to save four soldiers he hardly knew. Six
months later, on April 21, with cherry blossoms in full bloom and war
protests rumbling on the horizon, President Lyndon Johnson posthumously
awarded Olive the Medal of Honor. In a Rose Garden ceremony, flanked by
Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Olive family and two of the saved men--one
black, one white--Johnson said that Olive's "instinct of
loyalty" caused him to put others first and himself last. "In
dying," the president said, "Pvt. Milton Olive taught those of
us who remain how we ought to live."
Forever 18, Olive is buried in an all-black cemetery behind a small church
in a Mississippi farming town. Today he is memorialized by Olive Terrace
at Ft. Gordon near Augusta, Ga., Olive- Harvey community college on
Chicago's Far South Side and Olive Park on the edge of the lake, just
north of Navy Pier.
The men he saved are now grandfathers and great-grandfathers. There's
little chance you've heard of them, yet they, too, are heroes. The
ordinary, everyday heroes we send off to war and then forget. This is
their story: who they were and who they became because a skinny teenager
from the South Side gave them the gift of life.
At 73, Vince Yrineo, the Mexican-American platoon sergeant, is the oldest.
For years after the ambush, slivers of shrapnel still worked their way out
of his skin and snagged on his shirt. They fell to the floor like
He still saves a tattered piece of metal from that day. It is Milton
Olive's dog tag. It's about an inch long and weighs no more than a nickel.
One edge looks as if a wild animal took a bite out of it; another has been
pierced by something evil, leaving a jagged hole in its once-shiny silver
skin. Yrineo has kept it for 37 years. "To me," he says,
"it's something sacred."
Lionel Hubbard, the black private from west Texas, is 57. Still tall, but
not as lean, he hopes to retire from his oil refinery job in a couple of
years. He wants to concentrate on the nine houses he and his wife of 36
years own and rent out near Houston.
He tries not to think about Vietnam. "But if it wasn't for
Milton," he says, "I know I wouldn't be here talking to you
The other private, John Foster, a black boxer from Pittsburgh, is 56. The
guys used to call him "Hop" because he was so fast in the ring
and on the football field. He has lost sight in his left eye and part of
his left foot to diabetes. Nobody calls him Hop anymore.
"I know that since Milton died," he says, "I'm living for
two people, not one." Along with another ambush survivor, Foster
attended the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House.
Finally, there is Jimmy Stanford, the white lieutenant struggling to
overcome a racist streak. He lives in San Antonio and is working on his
fourth marriage. At 66, his hair is white as Texas cotton. His new wife is
from Korea. Once upon a time, if anyone would have told him he would end
up marrying "a minority gal," he would have said they were
crazy. He might have asked them to step outside.
"Milton Olive changed me," he says. "I made a vow never to
The men of 3rd Platoon, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, 173rd
Airborne Brigade, are humping and chopping their way through jungle so
thick it swallows up the sunlight--and the Viet Cong. It's hot as an oven
and Charlie's invisible. But he's out there, all right. And he's close. He
has been sniping at Company B--the Bravo Bulls--off and on for most of the
Several hours have passed since a flock of helicopters plunked the
paratroopers down somewhere in the vicinity of Phu Cuong early this
The orders sound simple enough. They always do to the brass in the back.
Search and destroy.
The problem is, the enemy is like a ghost and it's his haunted house.
Death and Charlie are everywhere and nowhere.
A sniper already has killed George Luis, of Hawaii. A head shot. Nasty.
The platoon sergeant, Vince Yrineo, has to remind the men and himself to
keep moving. Mourn later.
At 36, Yrineo was a military lifer. A Los Angeles native, at 17 he
enlisted in the Navy just after World War II, got out, played civilian for
a while and then joined the Army when he got bored. He volunteered as a
paratrooper after some jackass told him he didn't have the guts to jump
out of a plane.
His divorced mother, Dolores, was from the old country, Mexico, and did
whatever it took to keep her family of five boys and one girl from
spending even one hungry night. She was a seamstress, a cook and, to hear
her bemused son tell it, a successful bootlegger. "As a matter of
fact," he says, "she bought a couple of houses with her
Yrineo's four brothers served in World War II. He wanted to be just like
them even though he got disgusted with his country when his
Japanese-American neighbors were rounded up at the beginning of the war
and sent to internment camps. "It really teed me off," he says.
"It still does. They were Americans like everybody else."
Third Platoon is on the right flank of the company when it comes to a
clearing in the jungle, a burned-out patch of brown and black littered
with charred tree stumps.
Jimmy Stanford, at 29 a senior citizen as first lieutenants go, doesn't
have to remind his men to keep their eyes open and their trigger fingers
ready. He does anyway.
He's the platoon leader, rotated in just three days ago. Not one of those
West Point officers, Stanford is an enlisted man with ambition. It took
him 11 years to earn his bars.
He joined the Army in 1954 when he was 18, a couple of years after
dropping out of high school.
He was following family tradition. Stanford men have been putting on
uniforms and marching off to battle since the War Between the States. His
great-grandfather wore gray, a private in Company G, 46th Georgia
Infantry. His daddy was a doughboy in World War I and survived a fog of
poison gas rolling through his trench in France.
Stanford loved being a soldier. Still, working so closely with blacks and
Latinos took some getting used to. Lake Jackson, Texas, was a segregated
town and Stanford couldn't remember seeing blacks after dark as a kid in
the 1930s and '40s. "They stayed in their place," he says.
"We stayed in ours."
He learned that lesson early in life. A black woman worked for his family
when he was 6 or 7. She had a son about his age and the two boys got to be
pals. One day when Stanford was playing with his friend, his daddy came
along and chased the boy off, telling him to go play with his own kind.
After that, when Stanford crossed paths with blacks and Latinos, "I'd
give them hell," he says. "It was just normal racial harassment,
nothing serious, practical jokes, name-calling, kid stuff."
In the jungles of Vietnam, Stanford didn't care if a soldier was black,
white or blue so long as he did his job. But sometimes his upbringing
showed. He once called a meeting of his squad leaders, two of whom were
black, and told Yrineo to "go get those niggers."
The platoon begins moving through the clearing, when suddenly the thick,
hot air is filled with bullets and grenades and the sound and smell of men
getting hit by lead. Third Platoon has walked into an ambush.
"We didn't even see where it was coming from," says Hop Foster,
then a 19-year-old private. "Either they opened up the ground and
threw it up or they were up in the trees and tossed it down."
Just a couple of years earlier, Hop Foster's biggest worry in the world
was where to celebrate with his black and Italian teammates after the
Chiefs had beaten another opponent. For three years in a row, the Chiefs
ruled sandlot football in Pittsburgh.
The son of a barroom bouncer and a domestic worker, Foster joined the Army
at 18 because he needed a job after dropping out of school in 11th grade.
But there was another reason he enlisted.
"I thought I was earning my citizenship by going into the
service," he says. "I was paying my dues. Nobody could ever call
me a second-class citizen now."
When the shooting starts, Lionel Hubbard, a 20-year-old private, dives
behind what's left of a tree stump. "There was nothing else," he
says. "If you raised up, you were dead."
The noise of battle is tremendous. So is the adrenaline roaring through
Hubbard's slim body like a Texas twister.
His folks ran a cafe in Brownfield, Texas. They catered to the workers at
the cotton compressor, and Hubbard helped out after school and on
weekends. He joined the Army after graduating from high school because he
didn't want to spend the rest of his life in a cafe.
He volunteered for the paratroopers because they were the toughest, the
bravest, the elite. He loved jumping out of airplanes. But when he got to
Nam, it took him a long time before he would shoot at the enemy. "I
didn't want to fight because I didn't have nothing against the
Vietnamese," he says. "It's more than a notion to take a
His first weeks there, he couldn't sleep. He couldn't eat. He watched
people die. Young people just like him were shot to pieces. Body bags
lined up in the mud waited for the choppers to take them away. "After
a while," he says, "I started shooting at everything that moved.
I still didn't want to fight. I still didn't have nothing against the
Vietnamese. But it was either them or me."
Hubbard is pinned down with a cluster of men, hiding behind stumps, faces
buried in the dirt, bullets whistling inches over their heads, grenades
coming in. The men are too close together. Stanford, Foster and Yrineo are
lying near Hubbard and so is the skinny kid from Chicago, Milt Olive.
It surprised some of the guys that Olive was from Chi-town. As Hop Foster
says, even a blind man could see he wasn't one of those street-smart kind
of cats. He was more like the guy who quietly plays chess in the corner of
the juke joint, near the fun but not all the way in it. "He was kind
of clean-cut," Foster says.
On the other hand, he wasn't a square, either. He didn't cuss like a lot
of his Army buddies, but he didn't get shocked if someone else did.
Olive joined B Company as a replacement in July, almost four months before
he was killed. He had a dry wit like his father. In a letter that summer
to his cousin Barbara Penelton, who now heads the department of education
at Bradley University, Skipper called himself "Uncle Sam's Number One
Man in Viet Nam."
"Just a line to say hello," he wrote. "I'm over here in
Never Never Land fighting this hellish war." Things had been
"pretty tough" but they had "a ball" roasting wieners
on sticks and "then we gathered around the fire."
"You said I was crazy for joining up," he continued, "well,
I've gone you one better. I'm now an official U.S. Army Paratrooper. How
does that grab you? I've made six jumps already."
He was wounded slightly in a firefight soon after joining the outfit, but
never told his father. He didn't want to worry him.
The father, Milton B. Olive Jr., thought joining the Army would be good
for his son, make a man of him. The boy would be fine. America was at
peace when he signed up in 1964. No one had heard of Vietnam.
Big Milton clearly was devoted to his boy, dressing him in matching
father-and-son suits, teaching him photography, giving him his name and
the name of his father, but with one difference. When he took his frail
son home from the hospital, he named him Milton Lee in memory of his late
wife, Clara Lee.
Perhaps that's why Skipper always seemed more mature than other children.
He had been on a first-name basis with death and loss since the day he was
born. "He took everything serious," says Leonard Hampton, a
childhood friend. "He was a little bit conservative. He didn't hang
too tough with the guys."
His father's cousin raised little Milton for the first several years of
his life. The boy also spent a lot of time with his father's parents on
their farm in Mississippi. In 1952, Big Milton married a schoolteacher,
Antoinette Mainor. Skipper returned to his father's house for a few years,
but attended high school in Mississippi.
Before he dropped out of school to join the Army at 17, Skipper was
already fighting for his country. He was helping civil-rights workers
register black people to vote in the backwoods of Lexington, Miss. When
his grandmother found out what he was doing, she had his father take him
back up North. A few years earlier, another black boy from Chicago who
misunderstood the way of the South, Emmett Till, had been lynched.
The family thought Skipper would be safer in the Army.
A bullet slams through Foster's helmet and rips off a piece of his
eyebrow. "How bad?" he asks the man lying next to him.
"You'll live," Olive grins.
Moments later, a grenade lands in the middle of the five men.
"[It] was about a foot from my face," Stanford recalls.
"Then out comes this black hand and grabs it."
According to Stanford, the last thing Olive says is, "Look out,
According to Foster, the last thing Olive says is, "Look out, Hop,
The last thing Olive does is shove the grenade under his body, taking the
full force of the blast. It throws him into the air and flips him over on
"I heard a muffled sound," Foster says. "Then for some
reason it seemed like everything went real quiet. It was like they stopped
the war after that."
But the war hasn't stopped. GIs are getting hit left and right. Shrapnel
hits Hubbard. The toes on his left foot are dangling by a thin thread of
skin. His boot is filled with blood.
Shrapnel smashes into Yrineo's face, arm and chest.
Hubbard and Yrineo have to be carried to a chopper. Hubbard spends three
weeks in the hospital; Yrineo spends five days.
Stanford is hit too, but he doesn't realize it until he's back at the base
camp and sees that his shirt is soaked with blood. All told, more than a
dozen men are wounded.
Charlie whispers away into the jungle like a ghost.
A few days later and 10,000 miles away, a man in a suit climbed the stone
steps of a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago and rang the bell.
Inside, preparing dinner, was Antoinette Olive, Skipper's stepmother.
The man had a letter in his hand.
"Is someone here with you?" he asked.
The man said he would stay until she finished the letter in case she
"He knew what he was doing," she recalls. "You could tell
he had done it before."
The letter said her stepson had died for his country and his parents
should be proud. "I was just numb," she says. "In the
movies you see people reading these letters, and they just fall apart. But
when it happens to you, you're just numb. You see it, you see the letters
making the words that say your child is gone, but you just don't believe
The Army sent Olive's belongings to his parents, including an AM/ FM
radio, a Bible and a camera. Olive loved taking photographs with his
father, who made a few extra bucks snapping newlyweds and church picnics.
Stuck inside the pages of his Bible was a business card his father had
made for him years earlier: Milton Olive III, Chicago's Only 12-year-old
Before Olive's body arrived home, his family was worried that he would
have to have a closed-casket funeral because of the blast. But the grenade
had not damaged his face. The war had.
"Oh my, how he had aged," his stepmother says.
After all these years, the Sarge is still looking out for his men.
In a big red notebook in the small brick house where he lives alone just
outside Tacoma, Wash., Vince Yrineo keeps the names of the eight men from
his platoon who died during his first tour of duty. Each has a page in his
sergeant's holy book, including the kid from Chicago, Milton Olive.
The Sarge also logs the dates they were born and when the Army stamped
them KIA--killed in action. He keeps their hometowns and their serial
numbers. He keeps their memories and his regrets. "So many young
kids," he says, shaking his head, the book open in his lap.
"They never had a chance to live. It makes you think the whole thing
was a big waste."
They were killed by snipers and by exploding shells, by enemy ambushes and
by friendly fire. They were killed despite his best efforts to keep them
alive, to send them home to their families. "My son was about 12
years old at the time," the Sarge says. "I tried to think of the
people I was in charge of as being him."
Milton Olive has a special place in his heart and in his house. On a
nightstand next to the bed, Yrineo has a small photo of his deceased son
on a laminated funeral card, dead at 23 from diabetes, along with a Bible
and a crucifix. But looming over the bedside shrine is a framed black and
white, 8-by-10 photograph of Milton Olive in uniform, his doe eyes peering
out from the past.
Yrineo has had the photo for 27 years. He has had Olive's dog tag for even
longer, ever since a young grunt wiped away the blood and jungle grime and
handed it to Yrineo in 1965. "Here, Sarge," he said,
"you'll know what to do with this."
He keeps the tag on a bed of cotton in an earring box. He always meant to
give it to Olive's father. Maybe it would give the old man a little
comfort. Or maybe it would break his heart all over again, Yrineo wasn't
sure. So he kept it, and the years passed and so did Milton Olive's
father, who died in 1993 before Yrineo could work up the nerve to part
with the tag.
Now Jimmy Stanford, his old platoon leader, wants the tag. Of all the guys
Milton Olive saved that day, Stanford admits to being changed the most.
"A day doesn't go by that I don't think about it," he says.
When Yrineo showed him the dog tag a few years ago at a reunion, Stanford
started bugging him for it.
No way, Yrineo said, no way in the world.
But Stanford kept pestering him and eventually they struck a deal.
"I told Jimmy if he outlives me he can have it," Yrineo says,
leaning back in his living room recliner. "But that's the only way
he's going to get it."
Stanford could have a long wait. At 73, Yrineo looks as though he could
still fit into his old uniform. Every morning, if the weather is decent,
he goes out into his back yard and raises the flag. Every evening at 5, he
The ritual reminds him of the why of his life.
Of the four men Milton Olive saved, Lionel Hubbard has built the highest
wall around his soul to keep the past out.
He doesn't have his dog tags anymore and he can't find his Purple Heart.
He was going to buy one on the Internet, but decided he didn't need it.
The Purple Heart license plate on his truck is good enough for him.
On his fireplace mantel sits a black and white photograph of Hubbard in
fatigues, the 173rd Airborne patch on his shoulder, a smile on his face.
The photo reminds him of how thin he used to be as much as anything else.
He'd like to lose a few pounds, but at 57 he's holding his own.
He doesn't go to reunions and he is not in touch with his old Army
buddies. His scrapbook from Vietnam, the one with the photographs of dead
comrades hung from trees by Charlie and dead VC with their ears cut
off--"payback," he explains--was lost a long time ago. For
years, he thought his wife had deliberately thrown it out, worried that
the ghosts would disturb his sleep. She says it was inadvertently lost in
Sometimes he misses the book. But mostly he thinks it's good that it's
gone. He hasn't tried to forget exactly. He just hasn't tried to remember.
Forgetting is impossible anyway. Whenever he gets dressed in the morning
or undressed at night, Vietnam and Milton Olive are there, embedded in his
"See those little black spots?" he says, rolling up his pants
legs. "All grenade fragments from that day."
Then he unlaces his left work boot. He pulls off his sock and wiggles his
toes. Two of the toes are gnarled and discolored, smaller than they should
be. "I prayed to God every day I was over there, `Please let me make
it back,' " he says. "Thanks to God and Milton, I did. Almost in
Hubbard has built a steady and comfortable life for himself and his family
on a manmade lake in Texas City, Texas, about 35 miles south of Houston.
He married his high school sweetheart, Madeline, in 1966, the year after
Milton jumped on the grenade.
For the last 20 years he has worked at the Marathon plant, blending
gasoline. His supervisor at work, Danny Anthony, also served in Nam. He
was a medic. "I carried a lot of body bags," he says. When he
and Hubbard talk, it's almost never about Vietnam.
Hubbard has three grown children, all born after Milton Olive died. He
also has a granddaughter, money in the bank and plans to retire in a
couple of years so he and his wife can travel around the country in a
camper. "Life ain't been half bad," he says.
Every once in a while there will be a story on the news about war vets
returning to Vietnam, searching "for closure or something, I
guess," Hubbard speculates. "Me, I don't ever want to go back. I
didn't lose anything over there."
The city of Miami is still waking up when John Foster's wife, Lula Mae,
drives him to the VA hospital for his thrice-weekly, four-hour dialysis
treatment. At 56, kidney failure and diabetes, what Foster calls
"sugar," are slowly eating him away. He has lost the sight in
his left eye, and part of his left foot has been amputated. "Vietnam
didn't do me this much damage," he says.
At the VA, Foster eases into a chair and nods good morning to the vet from
Korea and the one from Desert Storm. The wife of another old soldier hands
him a cup of coffee. She always has coffee for the Monday, Wednesday and
Friday morning regulars. "It's like a family," Foster says.
Foster stands out in this room full of veterans and beeping blood
machines. He has a long, gray beard, a gold hoop earring and a skullcap.
"I really think my life was spared for a purpose," he says.
"I'm not going to be Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, but if there's
one soul I can save, one person I can help up, then my life was saved for
a reason. I think it was so I could help spread the word of God. All I can
do with the gift Milton gave me is to try to pass it on."
Foster is a follower of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the self-proclaimed prophet of
a sect of "black Hebrews" in Miami that worshiped at the
"Temple of Love" and preached that its members were the chosen
people of the Yahweh Nation.
"In other religions they don't talk about black people, like we don't
exist," Foster says. "He showed us how we were in the Bible all
along. He wasn't being anti-white, he was being pro-black."
When Foster first got out of the service in 1966, he was adrift. "It
took me a long time to get over Vietnam," he says.
He knocked around Pittsburgh and New York for several years, doing
maintenance work, partying and occasionally going to church. "I guess
you could say I was searching," he says. "I asked myself, 'Why
me? Why was my life saved?' "
He moved to Miami in 1975 and was hired to manage the executive parking
lot of a local television station. In 1978, he became a follower of the
charismatic Yahweh Ben Yahweh. "Yahweh is the best thing to happen to
me since Milton saved my life," Foster says. "If I have to lay
my life down now, I'm ready. I feel I know God."
After amassing a small empire of buildings, cars and good deeds in the
1980s, the sect was brought down in the early '90s by a federal
racketeering indictment that included several counts of murder. Yahweh Ben
Yahweh was acquitted of the most serious charges against him but served
nine years in prison for conspiracy. Several other members were also sent
Foster, known within the troubled nation as Enoch Israel, was also
indicted and spent three years in jail awaiting trial. A federal jury
could not reach a verdict. After a plea agreement on state charges, he was
released in 1994.
Once again, Milton Olive had helped save Foster.
Foster's lawyer in the federal case, Chris Mancini, told the jury about
Foster's good character, his long and steady blue-collar work history, his
military service and his Purple Heart. Then he showed the panel a
It was of Foster standing tall and proud in his uniform, looking over the
shoulder of President Johnson at the White House during the Rose Garden
ceremony for Milton Olive.
"I told them the whole story," Mancini says. "I told them
that John was very moved by that kid."
Jimmy Stanford is hurrying through the lunchtime crowd along the San
Antonio Riverwalk, headed for the restroom, hoping for a little privacy.
His eyes are starting to well up talking about what Milton Olive did for
him and he doesn't want anyone to see him let loose.
He figures it's more than a little embarrassing, a past vice president of
the Special Forces Association of San Antonio, with two tours in Nam under
his belt and a Purple Heart on his wall, a mature man, as they say, with
13 grandchildren, a great-grandchild and a second on the way, crying in
front of a bunch of tourists throwing tortilla chips at the ducks. People
might think he's shell-shocked or something.
Coming back to the table a few minutes later, he says you'd reckon that at
age 66 he wouldn't still get so emotional about something that happened 37
years ago, but the boy saved his life.
And opened his heart.
"His act definitely changed me," Stanford says, taking a long
pull on his beer. "But it didn't happen overnight. I was a real
redneck. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, 'I'm going to quit
feeling negative about blacks.' It took several years."
He agrees it's a shameful commentary that Milton Olive had to jump on a
hand grenade to push Stanford down this trail, but that's how it was. He's
not proud of it; he's just trying to be honest.
He's not saying he's perfect now, either. He knows he still has work to do
on his soul. He asks, Who doesn't?
It has been a rocky journey, not much different from the one the country
he protected for 24 years as a soldier has been on since the civil rights
movement. "I've tried to live a better life," he says. "I
know I've treated people more fairly. Tolerance alone won't do it. You've
got to trust one another."
He says what's happened to him lately is living proof that even an old,
old dog can learn new tricks. After all, his fourth wife, Judy, is Korean.
They got married last May. As far as he's concerned, Milton Olive was the
She reaches across the table and gives his arm a squeeze.
"I think I got a good antique," she says, referring to their 13-
year age difference.
His eyes are getting misty again.
Stanford has been sending Christmas cards to Olive's parents for 30 years.
"I wanted to let his family know that I was grateful," he says.
He used to address the cards to Mr. and Mrs. Olive until the father passed
away in 1993 at age 81. His widow still has a stack of Christmas cards
from Stanford, the latest one postmarked December 2001.
Stanford stayed in the Army for 13 years after Olive died. He says that
back in 1970, the military went on "a sensitivity kick." Tension
between black soldiers and white soldiers in Vietnam had grown
increasingly thick, a reflection of troubles at home. The Army had to do
During his last four years in uniform, Stanford was assigned to the Army's
Office of Race Relations and Equal Opportunity. He worked with a black
sergeant, setting up seminars on race. "We were what they called a
salt-and-pepper team," he says. "He was the good guy and I was
the bad guy."
He says the Army figured the other white soldiers would be more willing to
listen to one of their own, a veteran with a Texas accent. His buddies
were not thrilled with the military or with him. They felt "a nigger
program" was being shoved down their throats. "I lost some
friends when I got into that field of work," Stanford says.
After leaving the Army, Stanford tried his hand at the home contracting
business and spent 17 years at Dow Chemical. Now he works in the service
department of a Cadillac dealership.
His narrow escape from Vietnam is never far from his thoughts. In 1991, he
decided to visit Milton Olive's grave. The problem was, he wasn't sure
where it was. Chicago, he assumed. He wrote Olive's father to make sure.
The old man quickly wrote back. Stanford still has the letter.
"Thanks so much for remembering us," the father wrote. "You
are the only one who has done so." He told Stanford that his son was
buried in Lexington, Miss. He gave him some phone numbers of relatives he
could stay with.
The next spring, Stanford had a wreath of plastic flowers made up in red,
white and blue, arranged to look like a flag. He loaded it in his van and
drove to Lexington and the small cemetery next to West Grove Church. There
waiting for him was Olive's father, who had driven down from Chicago.
The two men had not seen each other since the Medal of Honor ceremony in
1966. They embraced, and Stanford laid his wreath. He stepped back from
the grave, raised his trembling hand and saluted his fallen comrade.
Several of Olive's cousins walked up, stood beside Stanford and began to
sing. They asked him to join. At first he begged off. His eyes and voice
were full of tears. He turned away to regain his composure and then he,
too, began to sing.
once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see."