Commentary: Unforgettable soldiers

Some people are truly unforgettable; larger than life and so full of life that the memory of them lingers long after they're gone. One such man -- the late Capt. B.T. Collins — came roaring back to life for me this week with an announcement of the publication of a new book.

The book is "Outrageous Hero: The B.T. Collins Story" and it's a pure labor of love over the past 15 years by B.T.’s older sister, Maureen Collins Baker, who knew that B.T.’s memory shouldn't be treasured only by those of us who loved him. She wanted his story to live on in the hearts of many more Americans.

B.T. turned up in my office at U.S. News & World Report magazine not long after I'd written a cover story in the fall of 1990 on the 25th anniversary of the epic battles between U.S. and North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam's Ia Drang valley. He wore a steel hook for a right arm and he limped in on a plastic right leg, souvenirs of his second tour in Vietnam.

The big ginger-haired Irishman filled the space, and he arrived and departed talking a mile-a-minute. On his first tour in Vietnam, he'd been an artillery forward observer, assigned in early 1966 to one of the companies in the 1st Cavalry Division’s Third Brigade, then commanded by Col. Hal Moore. He knew Moore and other officers who'd fought in the Ia Drang battles the previous November.

Collins was also a storied character in California politics, a conservative Republican who'd served as chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, the very liberal Gov. Moonbeam.

Brown appointed him to run the state’s Civilian Conservation Corps. A Republican governor, Pete Wilson, named B.T. to run the state juvenile justice system and later urged him to run for and win a seat in the state legislature. He was the spark plug in the campaign to collect the money to build the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Sacramento. He championed the rights of battered women and of his beloved veterans.

He wrote a heart-breaking profile of his old company commander, Capt. Sam Bird, for Readers Digest. Sam was the tall young Army officer who'd commanded the detail that carried President John F. Kennedy’s coffin down the Capitol steps, and he lost part of his brain and his eyesight in Vietnam.

B.T. often spoke to Vietnam veterans groups, and he always told them this: “No whining and no crying! We are the fortunate ones who survived while so many better men around us gave their precious lives for us. We owe it to them to live every day to its fullest potential, working to make this world a better place for our having lived and their having died. No whining and no crying!”

On the day he was finally released from the hospital after 18 months of agony and countless operations, B.T. got a cab to the Pentagon, and on his crutches and his plastic leg he stumped through the Pentagon to the office in charge of officer assignments. It was manned by a squad of majors, none of whom wore any ribbons or badges denoting combat service.

B.T. asked to be assigned to duty in Saigon.

The half dozen majors reacted with shock. One said, “You can’t be serious, man. You have done your share already.”

B.T. replied: “Oh, I know I can’t go to the field like this, but I could hold down a desk job and free up an able-bodied man to go fight.”

Then he turned and stumped his way out of the office and down the hall. He'd done what he came to do: Shame those who pushed paper in the very distant rear while men like Sam Bird did the fighting and suffering.

B.T. Collins died on March 19, 1993. They said he had heart trouble, and they were right. His heart was too big but still filled to the brim with all his passions, all his causes, all his suffering and grief over his friends who never made it home.

When he died, I immediately shuffled through my in-box. Sure enough, there were half a dozen of those little sheets of notepaper on which his nearly indecipherable scribbles commanded that I call this veteran, that I send a signed copy of Hal Moore's and my new book on the Ia Drang battles to that guy.

I called them B.T.’s action orders. I pulled them out of the pile and set to work following his last orders, even though the notes were hard to see through the tears.

(You can order a copy of "Outrageous Hero: The B.T. Collins Story" for $25, postage included, at www.brycehillpublishing.com.)