From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Pie in the Sky

Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.

Margaret Mead

Just prior to Veteran’s Day in 1996, my wife and I drove to the new Colorado State Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our hometown of Pueblo, Colorado. It was the day the memorial was to be dedicated.

As I parked the car we could see that a crowd had already gathered. Hundreds of Vietnam veterans were quickly identified by their uniforms, hats or patches. It was also a “high profile” crowd including state legislators and virtually every one of our city officials.

From a distance I could see the three, eight-foot granite slabs that contained the names of the 620 Colorado men and women who had died in Vietnam. Above them flew the national colors, the flags of each branch of service and the POW/MIA flag. It looked just like the diagram Delbert Schmeling had shown me three years earlier. That thought caused me to cringe inside, first in embarrassment, then in shame.

My first impression of Delbert Schmeling had been that he was mentally handicapped. Delbert and his parents had attended a large celebration I had organized that included several Medal of Honor recipients. At the conclusion of the event Delbert had walked up to tell me how impressed he was with our program. “You know,” he told me haltingly, “If you can put together something this big, maybe you can help me with a project I am working on.”

Out of politeness, I invited him to call to make an appointment to discuss his project. “I will,” he replied. To my surprise, he did, the very next week.

As I set coffee for the two of us on the desk in my office, Delbert began showing me pages of plans, designs and a list of names. He explained that it represented his dream for a local memorial to honor his brothers and sisters from Colorado who had died in Vietnam. The project had been started by the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), which disbanded shortly thereafter. By “default,” Delbert became president of the nonexistent chapter and the sole hope for the future of the project. I appreciated the concept, but couldn’t bring myself to believe in its viability.

As he talked, I studied Delbert. His appearance, the difficulty he had with speech and other mannerisms initially give one the impression that he may have been severely wounded in Vietnam. I thought to myself, If a whole chapter of Vietnam vets couldn’t get this done, there is no way Delbert will ever pull it off.

Of course I didn’t say that out loud; instead I went out of my way to be positive—the big brother offering encouragement while knowing “the kid” was dreaming of “pie in the sky.”

That same afternoon Delbert opened up to me and began to share a little about himself. His learning difficulties as a child left him far behind his classmates. He graduated from high school two years behind other people his age.

After finishing high school in 1967 Delbert felt the right thing to do was to serve his country. He volunteered to join the Navy, but they weren’t interested in Delbert Schmeling. By November, however, the Army had enlisted Delbert and sent him to training. Ten months later he arrived in Vietnam. “I would have been there sooner,” Delbert told me, “but I had to go through basic training three times.”

Delbert never saw combat in the field, but for 365 days Delbert literally slept with his M-16 rifle, prepared for whatever may come. He tasted death, watched friends die in an explosion and fire on the base camp. On his last night “in country,” the enemy reached out one more time. That night Delbert huddled in a bunker with other soldiers as a major rocket attack was launched against his position. Throughout the night he never knew from one minute to the next if he would be walking onto the “Freedom Bird” home the next day, or if others would be carrying his body in a bag to the belly of a cargo plane.

Delbert survived the night and came home. He tried to put his life back together, but Vietnam invaded his dreams. For fourteen years his inner demons plagued him time and again until Delbert finally broke down. After six months in a VA hospital, Delbert was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and was eventually determined to be 100 percent disabled.

Back home with his parents, Delbert struggled to survive the bad days and find a sense of purpose in his few good days. He found some comfort and understanding among fellow Vietnam Vets in the local VVA before the group disbanded. When they were gone, Delbert determined to follow through with the dream of building a memorial to all his Colorado brothers and sisters who had died in Vietnam.

When Delbert left my office that day back in 1993, my mind was flooded with a mix of emotions. I couldn’t help but admire Delbert’s courage and determination. Part of me wanted to reach out, to do what I could to help Delbert make the dream come true. The “rational” side of me was more inclined to spend my time on “more attainable” goals.

In the years that followed, Delbert would call or visit me from time to time. I’d pat him on the back, give him a few words of encouragement and then send him off to accomplish his mission—alone.

And that is exactly what Delbert had done. The kid who had so much trouble forming speech in normal conversation stood alone before the city council and city leaders to promote his project. He sat in front of local grocery stores for three years with a small glass jar to collect nickels, dimes and quarters to make the dream happen. He’d collect aluminum cans, visit businesses and solicit help wherever he could. He paced off an area allocated by the city council for a memorial site, dug up snow-covered dirt, and staked off areas for concrete masons and contractors. And now, just a week before Veteran’s Day, the fruit of his labors had become a source of pride for our whole city. Delbert Schmeling had become, in his own simple way, a hero to all of us.

During the dedication of the memorial that day, I observed elderly mothers gently running their fingers across the engraved names of Colorado sons and daughters who had answered their country’s call and paid the supreme sacrifice. Others left flowers, mementos and tears at the base of the three granite panels.

Since its dedication, seldom has a day passed that Delbert has not visited the memorial. He tends the landscape, polishes the stone and regularly provides fresh flowers from his mother’s garden. He is a daily volunteer at the local VA clinic, and he frequently drives the four-hour round-trip to take less fortunate veterans to the nearest VA hospital in Fort Lyons.

The man who I always thought of as a “kid brother” is proving to be the biggest of us all. I hope and pray that I can be half the man he is today.

Recently, while visiting with Delbert, he looked at me and said, “Doug, maybe you can help me with a project I am working on.” I smiled inwardly and thought to myself, Where have I heard those words before?

“You know,” Delbert said, “There is lots of space near the Vietnam memorial, and we need to do something to remember our Korean War Veterans. . . .”

Doug Sterner

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