Making a sacrifice: Some who ‘will’

On July 4, 1776, the founding fathers of our country signed the document that began our nation’s first war. On April 12, 1861, Confederate soldiers fired the shots that began her bloodiest.

On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt gave the speech that began her noblest. After each of these conflicts, the soldiers who fought in them never shed their uniforms, they simply covered them with the mantle of parent, friend, and spouse.

These brave men and women still exist today, proud servants of our great country who have slowly faded into anonymity.

The jovial Byron Higgin, who has made a profession of speaking at veteran events, is seldom seen without a smile on his face and a veteran’s cap on his head.

A friendly man who makes up part of our community, once a year he’s recognized as so much more than that. That day is November 11.

On November 11, we remember that from 1968 to 1969, he risked his life for his countrymen as they burned his flag on Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis.

We thank him for the two years when he served and protected his nation as they prepared to curse at him and spit on him. But just as we remember and give thanks, so does he.

“Even though this was a terrible experience, it helped me become a patriot,” he said, and for that, he is grateful.

Byron, like many of his fellow soldiers, was drafted; he had no aspirations to join the military. In fact, after being drafted, his intent was to become a conscientious objector. This plan never came to fruition, however, and he became a radio telephone operator, (RTO), in the 82nd Airborne Division.

But our local hero did not immediately transform from a reluctant soldier to a proud veteran. He almost died first. During one incident, Byron crossed a small creek in order to reach an area where South Vietnamese troops were landing in helicopters.

As Byron and his companions were guarding the surroundings, the first drops of a monsoon fell on their heads. As the storm worsened, the creek, so easily crossed before, swelled and grew. The soon raging river was the only way back, so a rope was thrown across, and the GIs were instructed to hold on to the rope as they crossed. Byron began the difficult trip across, literally holding on for his life. When the rushing water knocked his helmet off of his head, he instinctively grabbed at it with one hand.

The strength of the current ripped his other hand from the rope, and he was rapidly pulled downstream.

Seeing a branch within his reach, he lunged for it. The flowing water was too strong for even this branch, however, and Byron was soon thrust back into the water and danger swirling around him. Seeing another branch and another chance at safety, Byron again reached for it, this time catching a hold of a stronger branch.

One of his fellow soldiers pulled him to safety. Byron still remembers his name: “John Cam, from Connecticut,” he said. This is one of the men that Byron learned to look up to during his time in the military: his fellow GIs who fought beside him every day.

It was with these GIs that he would sit around and talk on holidays after finishing their endless duties. It was with these GIs that he watched the most beautiful sunsets. It was with these GIs that he sat back to back on a trail at night, wondering if the soldiers they heard approaching were friend or foe.

It was with these GIs that he grew used to the question from the local children, “Hey GI, you got candy?” In 1969, Byron Higgin returned from fighting his first war. Through 1970, he fought it over and over again in his dreams.

Byron risked his life in a country that clung to its beauty despite bombing and burning; not many people are willing to make that sacrifice, but I thank God that there are some who will.

Byron Higgin, photo by Cecilia Rabaey.

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