Taps for Tom
Honor Flights have allowed military veterans from around the country to visit war memorials built in their honor in Washington, D.C.
Gallery: Taps for Tom [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
Story by Bud Elliott
The fifth in a series of Central Valley Honor Flights will depart from Fresno on April 25 with a group of 65 to 70 World War II military veterans anxious to visit the many war memorials built in their honor in Washington, D.C. Of the 16 million Americans who served under arms in the second great war of the 20th century, fewer than 850,000 are still alive. The last surviving vets are dying at the rate of 650 per day.
The 100 Honor Flight hubs around the country are in a race against time to get the remaining World War II vets a seat on an Honor Flight. Only in very rare and extraordinary cases are vets from Korea or Vietnam or Desert Storm invited on a flight. There were four Central Valley Honor Flights last year. Vietnam vet Tom Beckham was booked on the September 2014 Honor Flight.
As a U.S. Marine, Sgt. Marion B. Beckham, III served two 11-month tours of duty in the northern provinces of South Vietnam from early 1966 until November of 1968. Upon arrival, he was thrown into early and intense battles throughout the city of Da Nang and the provinces of Quang Nam and Quang Tri. He endured 10 days of captivity and torture in a 3' x 3' x 3' bamboo cage before escaping, was knocked out cold when a Viet Cong bullet pierced his helmet, survived a helicopter crash landing, killed a full quota of enemy troops and received toxic exposure to the powerful defoliant, Agent Orange.
"I was never sprayed directly. It was always after the fact," he recalled at his home in Oakhurst in July 2014. "It's like a mist, and I don't know how else to describe it.
“It's like a London fog."
The dioxin-laced chemical was used extensively by American and South Vietnamese forces to defoliate vast stretches of jungle and cropland to deprive the Viet Cong of food and the lush green canopy so useful in hiding troops.
"And the stench! It's got this smell," Beckham said. "It's like smelling a burnt body. You never, ever forget it. Never."
Only later did Americans discover the horrible effects of Agent Orange on human bodies, tens of thousands of them, friend and foe alike.
In the summer of 1969, Beckham returned to Oakhurst with a chest-full of service medals and an honorable discharge. He settled into a career making music and entertaining friends in cities and towns from Berkeley to Bakersfield, but mainly in the foothill towns near Oakhurst, Bass Lake and Shaver Lake.
"Tom was born for the stage. He could light up a room the moment he entered," said lifetime friend and band member, Gene Day, "He loved his little band and he loved to perform." At the same time he quietly began a 46-year private war against the military to win recognition, compensation and treatment for his war-related injuries.
For many years after the Vietnam War, the Department of Veterans Affairs denied that thousands of American troops had been harmed by their exposure to Agent Orange or the many similar defoliating weapons. But Beckham knew almost immediately that his headaches, skin rashes, acne, mood and sleep changes, general malaise and early signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were all a direct result of the noxious, toxic chemicals that touched him during combat in Vietnam.
"We told the VA that each and every one of these symptoms was caused by Agent Orange, but for years and years they just wouldn't listen," he said. Finally, in 1984, one of the manufacturers of chemical defoliants agreed to pay several thousand GIs $3,000 apiece to settle injury claims.
"It was in insult,” Beckham said. “I didn't take it."
The Department of Defense continued to refuse to admit any liability for the growing list of maladies ascribed to Agent Orange. Beckham, and many like him, fought harder. Lawsuits, congressional hearings, medical research and public opinion slowly pushed the military-industrial complex into a corner.
As the years passed, Beckkam's symptoms worsened. Legal blindness, perhaps the result of diabetes, brought on by stress. Skin cancer and then lung cancer. A liver transplant and then a pancreas transplant. Increasingly severe PTSD.
And all the while, his band played on.
"I tried not to show my emotions because I was in a business where people paid good, hard money to be entertained, and that was my job – to entertain," Beckham said.
"(But) I had the highest level of PTSD without being sent to the nut house. I wasn't suicidal – I was homicidal."
Linda Day, the band's lead vocalist for several years, said Beckham never showed his suffering.
"In fact, he never really talked about the Vietnam War, and he certainly never told us anything about the damage that Agent Orange had done to him," she said.
Jerry Burns, who played bass guitar with the band, said Beckham "could infect a whole room with his charisma."
"I'll always remember his sheer joy at dancing the polka, of all things, years ago at a club in Clovis,” he said. “His head thrown back, that cheek-to-cheek smile of his, cowboy boots clomping in overdrive, hair flying out like a colt at the Derby."
When Al Perry, president of the Central Valley Honor Flight organization, heard of Beckham's fragile and deteriorating condition, he extended a special invitation to join the next available flight. At first Beckham resisted emphatically, but gradually began to realize that the trip would be vindication for his long battle."I decided to do it for my buddies," he said. "I don't know why I survived and so many of them didn't. I don't want to go out with all this hatred.
“I want to go to the Wall and tell them I did my best."
Almost every vet who makes an Honor Flight will tell you that they are not heroes, that they didn't contribute as much as the other guy, that they regret not giving more to the war effort.
"You look around and here's these other guys, same situation as I am in. They want to go but they're afraid to take that next step," Beckham said last summer. "It brings back a lot of hurt."
Perhaps that is why there are always a few old vets who simply cannot get off the chartered bus to join their comrades at the Marine Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknowns. The memories 70 years later are still too vivid to touch – the thunderous unceasing noise of battle; the constant, ungodly stink of death; an unexpected SLAP! SLAP! of bullets shattering the skull of your closest buddy; air too putrid to breathe; smoke and fire and brutality and 50 consecutive days of cold beans and unwashed fear … Far too much for a 20-year old soul to endure.
Yet they did.
On the Vietnam Honor Wall in Washington, DC there are 58,300 names of men and women who served and died during the Vietnam conflict. Tom Beckham's name should be on that wall. But it's not, because Beckham had the misfortune of dying 46 years after receiving his fatal wounds while serving two tours of duty as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam.We spoke at his home in Oakhurst on July 9, 2014. He passed away on July 19, 58 days before his Central Valley Honor Flight
Bud Elliott retired in May 2014 from a broadcast journalism career that spanned 49 years, including 27 years at KSEE-TV in Fresno. He is currently a freelance writer.