I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. It’s a sad story, but it’s not the first or last of its kind. And it’s surely one we all should hear.
Bob Shields died early in December. Anyone who attended Galva High School in the mid-60’s--or played football in the old Blackhawk Conference in those days--would likely remember Bob well, despite the fact that it has been years since he lived in this area.
Bob was one of those guys who really could be described as “larger than life.” He and his brother, Terry, who still lives in Galva, were big, strong farm kids who, among other exploits, played football with a kind of ferocious glee that made them both mainstays of some of the best, most respected teams Galva has ever fielded. I was just a freshman when Bob was a senior, so we didn’t knock heads much, but I still remember one day in practice when some coach with, apparently, an evil sense of humor, lined me up in a backfield running plays against the first-team defense. I was to get the ball, follow the blocking around right end, then cut back against the grain, supposedly using the sudden cutback to elude the defensive players who would be pursuing the around-end play.
It worked. For about two yards. Until I met Bob.
Truth be told, he probably let up a little before he hit me, but I know I flew further than any wingless creature had a right to fly. After I finally landed, Bob picked up my helmet, which had flown even further than me, looked inside to see if my head was still in it, then helped me up and gave me a gentle shove back towards the huddle.
“Good run,” he said.
I can only imagine what going up against Bob was like for the guys who had to do it every play.
After high school, Bob went to Southern Illinois University. It was 1968, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and so, one night, he and a bunch of buddies agreed that the only right thing to do was to join the Marine Corps. The next morning, Bob was the only one to show up at the recruiters’ office. It would have been easy enough to go back to the dorm and forget the whole thing, but Bob didn’t. He volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. He was a Marine engineer, receiving an honorable discharge in 1970, along with the Vietnamese Service Medal with a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the National Defense Service Medal and an expert rifleman’s badge. He played football for the Marines, too, which, when you think about it, must be about the toughest kind of football there is.
But Bob returned home with more than medals and memories.
This notation was included on Bob’s discharge papers: “Discharged with a red rash.”
Between 1962 and 1971, approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides, including Agent Orange, were used in Vietnam to remove plant life that provided cover for enemy forces. Many soldiers were exposed to these chemicals. And many, like Bob, suffered from a number of conditions, including aggressive skin cancers.
Bob’s skin condition was something he dealt with for the rest of his life, though he never let it stop him from living that life to its fullest.
Following the service he mined coal in Hanna, Wyoming, where he married his wife, Ilo. He later spent 20 years in Alaska working at the Red Dog Mine, the largest lead, zinc and silver mine in the world, located in a spot so remote that he commuted 1,200 miles by plane for his 14-day on/7-day off shifts. Bob continued to lead an adventurous life, marked by hard work and a love for the outdoors and his family. And yes, Governor Palen, on a clear day, you can see Russia from the Red Dog.
But the rash never went away.
Bob sought treatment many time, but was never offered a definitive diagnosis or cause for the disease that dogged him over the years.
Finally, it got worse. And finally, his government--the same government he had volunteered to defend--had to admit that Bob’s now-terminal skin cancer had been most likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam.
It was too late. Bob died on December 3rd, just a day short of his 62nd birthday.
It wasn’t an easy death. But brother Terry, who visited Bob shortly before his passing, noted that Bob faced it with great courage.
The Vietnam War wasn’t a popular one. And as a result, many of the men who fought in that war never really received the words they deserved from the rest of us.
So, in memory of Bob, and to all of you: Thank you.
And to those, like Bob, who were--and continue to be--afflicted by Agent Orange and other chemical agents, here’s a couple more words: We’re sorry.
But to Bob, alone, I can only repeat what he said to me as he sent me wobbling back to the huddle on that fall day in 1964.