After first flying over the first of 3 North Vietnamese Army base camps at the altitude of 1,500 feet... at the request of the infantry lieutenant on board for a closer look... to gather visual information for a Marine unit that was going to conduct a strike that night... we then descended to an altitude of only 400 feet for a second pass-over... suddenly our lone helicopter came under intense automatic weapons fire.
Long story short... we were shot down... and by the grace of God and an excellent co-pilot... we managed a controlled "landing" nearby.
Because of our desperate situation... I was not able to make the afternoon flight I had been scheduled for. My best friend, George Vangundy, took my place.
Shortly after his flight took off the helicopter experienced catastrophic mechanical failure... George died instantly.
Thirty-nine years later to the day, April 19, 2010, our first born son and I traveled some 650 miles to the resting place of my friend... to place a simple rose of remembrance... over his grave... and say a prayer in memory.
We were able to find the location of the grave after having been united over the internet with one of George's sisters, Judy, several years ago. Judy and her husband, Larry, graciously met us at the grave site in the north-western corn fields of Indiana.
I had always felt... and often said that George had died in in my place. I had shared the same with Judy in our e-mail correspondence... it was a heavy weight on my heart... for 39 years.
We had a blessed time together in that small, rural, cemetery... words cannot describe how grateful our son and I felt that Judy and Larry would make what was for them a 4 hour journey to... meet us there... at the grave of her brother.
The picture above is xtnyoda... and Judy.
I shared with her again my deepest feelings of... grief at the loss of life... and the emotions that go with feeling that somehow... it should have been me.
Judy was gracious beyond description... and delighted to meet us. It was one of the greatest and rewarding moments of my life... to get to look into her accepting eyes and gentle unassuming smile.
As we approached each other for the initial greeting... after John and I got out of our car... she quietly asked, "May I hug you?"
I don't know what to say about the embrace... except to say... for a fleeting moment... it seemed I could actually feel the heart-beat of my friend... in her heart.
After our sharing and grateful meeting... it was time to say good-by. Judy asked, "How long was your journey?" I responded, "It only took about 11 hours driving."
Her husband, Larry, gently responded, "No Chuck... it's been a 39 year journey." His wisdom struck home.
Then... a couple of days later I received an e-mail from Judy that I wish to share part of with you. This paragraph is one of the greatest statements of personal redemption I have ever received... save the cross of Christ.
"You have said several times that George died in your place. I think this thought has caused you a lot of pain over the years. I wanted to tell you that I don't think George died in your place. I think George died in his own place, and one day, you will die in your own place.
I don't think one can choose to decide who dies in who's place. The Lord is the only one who decides.... and then He calls us to Him when He is ready for us. I understand how you might feel about what happened, but please don't continue to think about it as you do. George died in his place and you will die in your place when the time comes.
That statement friends... is priceless.
I post this as it is one of the most beautiful tributes that I have ever read. George truly had a life long friend, even though his own life was tragically cut short. You are a special man Chuck. Thank you for sharing this with us.