If you live out Graham way, you might know a fellow named Gary Birka.
Birka graduated from Bethel High School in 1968, lived in Pierce County nearly all his life, worked in the electrical trade for three decades, raised a daughter, Carin, with his wife of 45 years, Christine, and is really into woodworking.
What you might not know, what Birka never really talks about, is that he served as a soldier in Vietnam, served so valiantly, in fact, that more than four decades later, at a ceremony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord on Friday, he was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest decoration a soldier can receive for valor.
“It’s about time,” Maj. Gen. Thomas James said before pinning the medal to the lapel of Birka’s sport coat in front of the 7th Infantry Division Headquarters as a brass band played and the 56 flags of the U.S. states and territories stirred in a slight breeze.
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Birka’s war story is one of gallantry to be sure, but it also is one of camaraderie and how a yearning to remember can bring old Army buddies together, even after more than four decades apart.
The date that set things in motion is Aug. 29, 1969.
Pfc. Birka, a skinny 19-year-old barely out of high school, was lugging an M60 machine gun through the countryside of Vietnam when a battalion-size element of the North Vietnamese Army sprang its U-shaped ambush.
Birka, his good friend at the time, Rick Adler, and more than 100 other U.S. soldiers were quickly surrounded and began taking casualties from mortar and small arms fire. Dozens were killed or wounded.
“We were in trouble,” recalled Tom Pearson, a platoon leader in D Company, 4th Battalion, 3d Infantry.
Adler, according to Army records, rushed forward to set up a perimeter. He soon was wounded by mortar fire but continued returning fire.
“Throughout the next several hours, Private Adler continued to hold his position, helped redistribute ammunition and offered words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers,” according to the certificate that accompanied his Silver Star, which he also received Friday. “During this time period, Private Adler was wounded a second and third time but refused to leave his position until he was no longer able to move.”
Birka was watching from nearby, and, when his friend collapsed, threw down the machine gun he’d been using to provide suppressing fire and ran to an exposed area to pull Adler to safety.
Birka himself was hit by mortar shrapnel during the rescue. A video camera he carried in his rucksack bore the brunt of the explosion, but he still was badly injured.
“That camera saved my life,” he said.
Birka and Adler were evacuated to separate hospitals for treatment and recuperation. More than 40 years would pass before they saw each other again.
Those years were hard, Birka said.
“I didn’t know if Rick lived,” he said. “It haunted me.”
Enter Pearson, the men’s lieutenant.
Pearson was nagged by the fact that Adler and Birka were not recognized for the valor they’d displayed. A few years ago, he began trying to contact his former comrades-in-arms and making calls to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin about decorations.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Pearson, who traveled from his home in Wisconsin to attend Friday’s ceremony.
Using Facebook, Pearson tracked down Birka and then Adler. A reunion was held in Florida in 2015. In the meantime, Pearson kept pestering the Army about decorations. Finally, the Army agreed.
During Friday’s ceremony, James referred frequently to what he called “the unforgiving crucible of ground combat.”
Adler said valor and gallantry weren’t really on their minds at the time.
“We were there for this guy and that guy,” he said, pointing to either side of him. “We just tried to save each other.”
And there were tears in his eyes.