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May 28, 2007

The Silence of Joseph W. Blickenstaff

Kevin E. Dayhoff

For many people, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. But hopefully you will take time out today to remember the greater meaning of Memorial Day - especially at a time when our great nation has more than 253,000 men and women in uniform deployed away from their families and loved ones - in nearly 80 countries oversees.

Many Americans will take Memorial Day as an opportunity for backyard get-togethers over the grill or trips to the beach. Today there will be many conversations about the future of our great nation as we continue to face staggering challenges both at home and abroad. Some will perhaps lament the price of gas or the rise in the cost of electricity.

But we should make sure to take time today to have a conversation about the terrible price that has been paid for our freedom to complain about the price of gasoline and electricity and utterly unpleasant thoughts about elected officials.

We owe today's - and yesterday's - brave men and women in uniform, who have paid for our right to complain - a debt greater than we will ever be able to repay.

Their sense of duty and sacrifice has given us a responsibility and a duty to honor them in our words and in our thoughts. It is a duty that greatly transcends today's barbeque.

Everyone has childhood memories of the deeper meaning of Memorial Day.

For me, growing in the 1960s, Vietnam was the stuff of Walter Cronkite and the daily drone of casualty reports.

Just a few days before Christmas in 1970, the war came home to Westminster. I was in Mr. Mike Eaton's English class with Bernie Blickenstaff. The classroom was in the front of the school and I could look out the window and daydream while Mr. Eaton would passionately espouse on the value of Beowulf in the original Middle English.

The consequences of war - and Vietnam - were just as foreign. But that was about to change.

As I looked out the window that cold gray day, I noticed two men dressed in military uniforms walk slowly across the parking lot, down the sidewalk and in the front door. Shortly afterwards, Bernie was called out of class - only to return quickly, grab his books and leave.

What Mr. Cronkite had failed to tell us was the uniformed men were Army majors from the "notification team." They had come to Westminster High School to pick up my Westminster High School class of 1971 classmates, Bernie and Fred Blickenstaff and take them home to their parents. Their older brother had been killed in Vietnam.

Their older brother, Specialist 5 Joseph William Blickenstaff, Jr., has long since joined the 18 brave Carroll County sons that have silently stood guard from the vantage point of an eight-foot high by four-foot wide and one-foot thick solid black granite memorial.

Their faces are frozen in time in what may be Carroll County's smallest, but most important park - the Carroll County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park across the street from the historic 1837 Court House in Westminster.

Some of the faces on the monument we knew. Some we didn't. But they were all someone's son or father or brother or uncle - or a cherished childhood friend. Their faces have been silent for many years, but they all have a story to tell.

Recently Fred shared with me the story that the face etched in stone can no longer tell.

Joseph W. Blickenstaff was born August 11, 1949, and graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1967. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a member of the VFW Post Police Boys Rifle Club and was active in the Boy Scouts and the National Rifle Association.

The family had moved to Carroll County - to a farm above Silver Run, near the Pennsylvania line in 1966. Joe had stayed at Poly to graduate and joined the family after graduation.

He enlisted in the Army on September 23, 1968, and received basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. After additional training at Aberdeen, MD, and Fort Knox, KY, he began his first tour of duty in Vietnam on Wednesday, October 22, 1969.

After serving with the 40th Signal Battalion for a short period, he accepted an assignment with the famed 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, known as "The Blackhorse Cavalry."

After serving a year in Vietnam, he returned home in August, just before school started in the fall of 1970, to spend time with his family. At the age of 21, he volunteered to extend his tour for another six months as an aerial reconnaissance scout with the 11th Air Cavalry Troop.

His responsibilities included flying in what was known as a "Pink Team," in a light observation helicopter (LOH), which soldiers called a "Loach." It was an OH-6A Cayuse, which was hardly bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle or a big flying egg.

"Pink Teams" were combinations of a Loach flying at treetop level with an AH-1G Cobra attack helicopter flying above at about 1,000 feet. When the Loach found the enemy, (a euphemism for getting shot at,) the observer would drop a red smoke grenade and the Cobra would swoop down and engage the enemy.

On a combat mission in the III Corps Tactical Zone on Saturday, December 19th, 1970, Joe's father's birthday, the helicopter did a 'zig' to the right instead of a 'zag' to the left; their helicopter was hit by enemy gunfire.

The pilot and SP5 Joseph W. Blickenstaff were both killed - just above the Mekong Delta and north of Ph Li, in Binh Duong Province, about 50 miles above Saigon.

Our country remembers Joe W. Blickenstaff, Jr., on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington on Panel 6W, Row 131.

Carroll County remembers Joe across the street from the courthouse. And I will always remember that cold gray day in December when I learned that freedom is not free.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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