One of the things about the war in Vietnam was the importance of body counts of enemy dead. Yet what body counts don’t tell you is the human side of those people who were killed. So much of what we read about in war news is related to the big picture and not to the little picture, the details of what happened on the day, at the place where the people in a particular body count died.
On March 28, 1968, according to Chaplain Ray Stubbe’s Battalion of Kings, eight men died at Khe Sanh Combat Base. Two of those men, Greg Kent and Jimmie McRae, were Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines. Those two men, along with Ron Exum, were standing in a trench when an incoming round landed near them and that was the end.
For years, after this event, I was under the impression that Ron Exum had also been killed in action, so it was with great surprise and some relief that I sat at a table with him at the 1993 reunion of the Khe Sanh Veterans. He sat there with his son and looked at me and I don’t think he recognized me until I smiled, because it was then that he nodded and said, “Yeah.” He smiled back and if you knew Ex, because that’s what we called him, you knew one of the premiere smiles on Planet Earth.
He first showed up at Bravo Company in mid-June of 1967. The company was on Hill 881 South. We had just lost a bunch of good Marines and Corpsmen in a nasty fight with the NVA and everyone in the company was staggered, so to speak.
Ex brought us some sunshine. He livened us up and made us laugh. I remember sitting with him and some other Marines in a hooch one afternoon after we had just finished a meal of C-Rations. He led us all in an off-key (not Ex, but the rest of us singing with him) medley of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles songs.
Those nine months that I knew Ex in Vietnam, he always seemed to have that smile on his face. It may be in the dark of the night, a mist so heavy it drooped down on us like the breath of doom. You’d hear his big voice challenging someone moving down the trench. “Who’s there?” When the other voice identified itself and gave the password, something very American, like “Joe DiMaggio,” then you’d hear the smile. Yes, you’d hear it.
Or out on patrol, humping straight up the side of some steep hill, the rain dripping off the triple canopy jungle, the leeches lying in wait to ambush you when you brushed some jungle grass, the red mud clutching the bottom of your jungle boots. You’d see him and he’d smile.
Every few years Ex would travel from Philadelphia to the Khe Sanh Veterans reunions and you’d get to laugh and reminisce with him. And still, there was always that smile.
Ron Exum was a fine man, a spiritual man.
Several weeks back I got a call from Tom Steinhardt who served with Ex and me in Bravo. Steinhardt told me that Ex had passed on unexpectedly. It was a surprise to Tom, to me, and I think to everyone who knew Ron.
Sometimes we think that the people who inhabit our lives, the really good ones, will be with us forever. And then they aren’t. I will miss Ron Exum.
Semper Fi, Ex.
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