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The Hero Next Door


Danny Ingram
President, American Veterans For Equal Rights

Marshall Belmaine is the newly elected President of AVER's Gold Coast Chapter in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. I had a chance to meet Marshall when I was in Ft. Lauderdale for the 2009 AVER National Convention.  Marshall is the kind of guy  you could probably look at and tell that he was, or rather "is", a Marine: he's a big guy, serious looking, kind of quiet and unassuming.  Until he gets a few  drinks under the belt, then he becomes the big, boisterous guy with all the best  "dirty" jokes, most of which would make, well, a sailor blush. If you were to  see Marshall Belmaine sitting on a bus across from you, or doing yard work next  door, you might guess that he served in the Marine Corps. But for the most  part, you'd see pretty much a normal type guy like so many others you meet every  day.  But that's exactly what makes Marshall such a remarkable guy. It's  precisely that "normal" part that makes Marshall Belmaine a hero.

Around Veterans Day last year a number of chapters reported in to me the media  coverage they were getting.  With the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" so much  in the news, the media was very interested in stories about gay veterans on a day established to honor the sacrifices of those who had served in the  military.  The Gold Coast Chapter had been contacted and the local press had run  a story on Marshall.  The story was available on the Internet and I was able to  read it myself.  Florida's "Sun Sentinel" wrote a very supportive article which started out with a story about Marshall's service in Vietnam:

"Under fire near Hill 861 in Vietnam, Lance Cpl. Marshall Belmaine proved his mettle the way tough Marines always have, through bravery and loyalty.

As the North Vietnamese Army pounded U.S. positions near Khe Sanh with mortar fire that April 1967, Belmaine saw his right leg sliced open by shrapnel just before he spotted another Marine, mortally wounded, screaming in pain as he lay draped over a bush.

Crawling about 100 feet over napalm-scorched ground, Belmaine was hit in the left arm by AK-47 fire before he reached his fallen buddy."
Nov 10, 2010, Sun-Sentinel

The rest of the article went on the talk about Marshall's life after Vietnam and his thoughts on DADT and military service by LGBT veterans.  Never being one to  miss an opportunity, I wanted to know what happened to the Marine that Marshall  rescued.  I thought that would be a great story we could use to show how Marines in combat were better off having gay Marines with them than not having them there at all. So I emailed Marshall and asked him for the rest of the story.  What I got was not what I expected.

Lance Corporal Belmaine served in the 1st Battalion 9th Marines, a unit known as  the "Walking Dead".  I have to admit that I have little knowledge of the Vietnam  War. When I was in high school, US history ended with the Korean "Conflict".  Vietnam wasn't mentioned; It still isn't, probably because most Americans still feel very uncomfortable talking about it.  In Vietnam the 1/9 endured the longest sustained combat and suffered the highest KIA rate in Marine Corps history.  The casualty rate is frequently listed as 93%.

Following is Marshall's firsthand account of what happened over the course of a few days in April, 1967.  I considered editing it to make it a little more "comfortable" to read. But I decided to leave it exactly as Marshall wrote it.  Otherwise the impact would be too diminished to understand the realities of combat in Vietnam. I have to warn readers that what follows is a deeply disturbing account, and if you suffer from PTSD you may not wish to read further.

This is the rest of the story after Marshall reached his "buddy".

"I got to him and gave him the last of my water and called for a corpsman. The corpsman came down and we lifted him off the thorn bush. The corpsman went to work on him while I positioned myself between them and the enemy. Then I heard the corpsman scream "I'm hit" and crying in pain. The bullet that hit the corpsman in the ass took off a piece of his dick while he was bending over the Marine. This entered the wounded Marine and finished him off. He was a Marine from my squad, from St Louis. The corpsman survived, lives  in one of the Dakotas. I spoke on the phone to him 8 or 9 years ago. We could hear screaming and pleading a distance away. Some of our men were captured and being tortured: some burned by gasoline, some beheaded, and our Lieutenant tied naked to a boulder with his genitals in his mouth..... After the shooting stopped this is how we found them."

When I finished reading what was on my computer screen I just sat back in my chair for a moment, stunned. I think my mouth was hanging open.  It didn't make me sad. It didn't make me angry. I just felt shocked. After a few minutes I wrote back to Marshall.  "My God, man, how could you live through that and maintain your sanity?"

Growing up in rural Georgia I was insulated from the Vietnam War.  I had a cousin in the war. He was distant.  We didn't talk about him.  Later he committed suicide. One of my classmates has a dad who was a pilot. He was shot down, MIA.  We didn't really understand that, either, at the time.  All I know is that when I grew up I wanted to be George S. Patton, like in the movie.  Later I wore a POW/MIA bracelet for many years, even while I was serving in the Army myself.  We had a few older guys in my unit who had been in Vietnam.  They were the ones who didn't care about having gay service members fight next to them.

As a nation, America bears a "collective" shame over the way we ignored the men and women who fought in Vietnam.  We lost. We'd rather just forget about it.  If we ignore it, and them, it will just go away.

This must not happen again.

When people talk to me about the current wars, of which most Americans remain purposely oblivious, I have one statement I say to them over and over again.  "I don't care if we have to pay taxes until our eyes bleed; we are going to take care of these soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  They did their part, by God-Almighty, we will do our's."  I don't care what political party someone belongs to, or whether or not they supported the war. The President of the United States made the decision to take our nation to war, and the nation will take care of those who went.  No questions asked. It is "part and
parcel".  Period.

When I remember Marshall Belmaine sitting out on the bar patio, a beer in his hand, a sweaty Marine Corps cap on his head, and a loud laugh bursting out of his mouth, I didn't realize I was looking at a hero.  I know now. It's not because he won medals, or "took" hills, or rescued battalions.  It's because he still laughs. He works, he breathes. He loves.  He lived a life.

To Marshall Belmaine and to all you other men and women, who saw so much and never even got a "thank you", let me tell you this: You Sir, and You Ma'am, You are a hero.  Don't you ever doubt it. Thank you for your service, for your life, and for your inspiration.  May no American ever doubt, what makes our nation great is not the statues or the monuments or the waving of the flags.  It's so much more subtle.  So much more special. So much more quiet.

It's the hero next door.

May it always be so.

Editor's Notes (from a follow-up interview):
Marshall Belmaine did not become an activist for our rights just last November.  He's been speaking up for quite some time.  His first march in a gay pride parade, in 1970, was just six months after he was discharged from the Marines.  As a VA PTSD patient in the 1990s, he came out in order to insist that hospital rules be amended to prohibit discrimination and abuse due to sexual orientation.  In group treatment he singularly spoke up about racism and the exemplary service of gay veterans.  In 1993, at risk to his own safety and employability, he came out as a gay veteran in a Boston Globe feature news story.  "I agreed to do it out of my sense of duty," he noted.

Of his PTSD, resulting from events such as those described in the story above, he said, "I carried around the souls of my dead buddies; I had a dragon that I kept in box.. ."  Being able to be open and honest in treatment is, of course, essential.

Marshall Belmaine earned the following medals and ribbons for his service to our nation:
Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation, National Defense Service, Vietnam Service Medal, Vietnam Presidential Unit Citation, Unit Citation, Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions, Republic of Vietnam Campaign.

  2011 Gay Military Signal