14 Oct 97
ACROSS THE RIVER AND INTO THE TREES
Pvt. David Sample was a handful. He was rebellious, cocky and loved teetering on the edge of insubordination. He and I got face to face in more than a few shooting matches. He started firefights where there was no way he could win.
I was his rifle company skippe,r and privates seldom win over captains, especially in a highly disciplined peacetime Army.
In 1961, we served together in the 18th Infantry Regiment in Germany. He packed a radio in my command group. Back in those days, the Cold War was hot and we were mostly in the woods practicing what we'd do to those Ruskie characters after they slammed through the Iron Curtain.
I ran a tight outfit. When the company stopped, my command group went to ground, formed a perimeter and started doing the basic stuff: organizing fields of fire, camouflaging, scratching out belly holes, which, if we stayed there long enough, became serious foxholes.
I made my grunts play this game and certainly wasn't going to allow my CP guys to goof off just because they brought up the rear.
Sample, a Native American lad from Missouri, thought my GI Joe drill was kid stuff. He wasn't impressed with my running lecture that soldiers do in combat what they learn in training, that if you do it wrong on the training field, you get killed on the battlefield .
He was always goofing. He wouldn't dig in. Rather, he'd slip behind a big tree, stretch out and catch some ZZZs. I can close my eyes now and see him acting like he was on the banks of the Missouri catching a few rays. Just waiting for my visit. He knew I'd make the rounds.
Invariably, I'd catch him. After a while, whenever I caught him in his right-ball mode, I'd thump his steel helmet hard with a branch I used as a walking stick. That got his attention, at least till the next time.
I liked Sample. He had a lot of heart, a lot of spirit, a lot of fire. He reminded me of Pvt. Hackworth.
By the time I left Delta Company, Sample was a corporal and a real comer. He was on his way to becoming a squad leader.
Guess those thumps and chewings paid off.
I met Sample 30 years later at a Band of Brothers reunion. He was a retired Master Sergeant. He'd left a leg and a half in Vietnam, been wounded three times in that hellhole and had scars where most people didn't have places.
He called me "Captain." The fact that I was now a colonel didn't impress him much. "That damn chicken stuff you whacked into me in Germany paid off. In three years in Vietnam's bush, I never lost a soldier. The basic fundamentals and doing it the right way saved a lot of lives."
"I just want to thank you. Together we got a lot of guys home still sucking air."
I told Sample that I was the wrong guy to thank. He'd have to thank Sgt. Steve Prezanka, an old 29th Infantry Division "Bloody Bucket" soldier, who thumped me on the head with a 2 by 4 in Italy in 1946 until I got it right.
Sample won the Silver Star and two more valor medals in Vietnam. To look at him you'd never know he was shy a leg and a half. He had a limp but was still tall, thin, handsome and stout hearted.
Matter of fact, he ran in marathons. In one race, he beat a 25 year old Army recruiter. The sergeant was moaning and groaning about how an "old man" like Sample beat him.
Sample tired of the whining said "Would it make you feel any better if I told you I was an amputee?"
He was still the cocky, defiant character I knew back in 1960 when those who served our country were proud to defend America, proud to wear our uniform down the streets of Berlin.
David Sample died last week. That stout heart gave out. I spoke to him on his deathbed. The last thing I told him was where he was going he'd have a lot of good company and to save a place behind his tree for me.