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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gray Matter: The world after Pearl Harbor

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Over the years, after respectfully remembering and properly observing Pearl Harbor Day, our lives moved on.  This year, with all that's happening around the world, it is not quite the same. Among other things, memories of the Vietnam era, and all that entails, seem to surface more readily. 

One of my sons, an attorney in Des Moines, recently recalled this poignant story. He was serving as the payroll officer on the Carrier Independence which maneuvered in the Adriatic during that era. Athens (actually Piraeus-the port community) was their home-away-from-home.  Working with him was Chief Petty Officer Dick Stethem, a career military man from Marathon, Iowa, whom he described as a great person. They worked closely together during the three years of Fred's Navy commitment. When he returned to civilian life, the Chief continued on and made it his career.

Years later, in 1985, while watching cable news one night, the story came across of terrorists taking over a commercial jet at the Athens airport. They had hi-jacked it to land in Beirut, Lebanon. A young Navy diver who was returning to the US from a training assignment in Greece, was one of the passengers. Identifying him as an American serviceman, the terrorists seized him, tortured him and eventually shot him to death. They then dumped his body out on the tarmac to prove their seriousness.

The next day, follow-up news switched focus to Washington DC where the parents of the dead American were shown walking across the street from their suburban home to address the media. To my son's devastated shock, it was his friend Dick Stethem and his wife.

He went on to relate that he caught up with his former Chief a few years later and they had a great talk.  Stethem's son, Robert Dean, is buried in Arlington Cemetery near a number of other American victims of worldwide terrorism. The Navy commissioned a destroyer after him in 1995, and his mother, Patricia, christened it the USS Stethem.

On the destroyer's website I recently read of a Change of Command ceremony on that ship this past summer.  It was attended by Stethem's family and friends. The new commander indicated that it and a second destroyer, the USS Higgins, named for Marine Corps Lt. Col. William Higgins, another terrorist victim, might be deployed to play a role in the current military campaign. Rob's father, the retired Chief, was quoted as saying, "We would like it very much if both the Stethem and the Higgins get to shoot tomahawks and deliver some justice."

Rob's brother, Kenneth a retired Navy Seal, spoke at the ceremony. He said he would always remembers his brother's funeral at Arlington National Cemetery and think about the flag-draped coffin. "Every time I look at the flag now and for the rest of my life, the red will represent the blood he spilled, the blue the beating and bruises he endured, and the white the purity and integrity he demonstrated in sacrificing his life.'

My son concluded by saying, "I have great memories of Athens, but now they are tinged with the horrific events which happened to my friend and his family.  It's not quite the same any more." 

History, of course, tells us that war has been a part of every civilization since time began. But as these stories continue of heroic young Americans, including that of Cherokee County's own a few months ago, we can only hope and pray that someday mankind might find a better way.