“Do you have a brother?”
The question brought to life the obvious reality that Ron Caldwell hadn’t considered, like a slap in the face, after he was already tired from months of hard training with a group of men he learned to call family. He wouldn’t be going to Vietnam to serve his country after all. All because he couldn’t be placed in the same country as his brother.
The United States would still use the soldier, however, but in a different way from what he expected.
In 1968, Caldwell became a member of the United Nations Honor Guard, serving in Korea as an infantryman.
“Our job was to stand guard duty,” Caldwell explained. “We worked around the clock. We would work for two hours and we would be off for four. This was nonstop, 24-7. We would do that, sometimes, for two or three weeks without a day off. Our primary duty was to provide security for General Charles Bonesteel, who was commander of all UN forces.”
Caldwell said that his duty also consisted of keeping watch of any dignitary or guest that Bonesteel had. He said that, like any military serviceman, there were many bad days and high tension, but he said that it also led to some interesting days as well.
“About every military man can tell you a hundred bad days, you know. We all had rough, tough days,” Caldwell explained. “You don’t really remember them so much, because you had so many of them, but, if there was a day that stuck with me, I’d have to say it was meeting Ann-Margret.”
Caldwell’s troop welcomed the likes of many people, including Miss America, Penelope Plummer, Bob Hope, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Sir Basil Rathbone, Ann-Margret, and more.
Ann-Margret stands out to Caldwell, because she was the first special guest he was commanded to protect. Another distraction was the kindness that she brought with her. Caldwell said that she was very talkative and interested in his life and his duties. His job was to protect her, but he said it was very easy to get distracted by her charm and wit.
“The first person I got to meet was Ann-Margret. I was very nervous, because, well, she was a beautiful woman and I hadn’t seen an American Woman in some time,” Caldwell explained. “She had something I hadn’t experienced in quite a while—perfume. It was so intoxicating to me that, to this day, I can still smell it, as if she were in front of me right now.”
Caldwell said that he can also keenly recalled Bob Hope, because he was just as kind as Ann-Margret and did a lot of work with soldiers.
“It was a lot of pressure to work under that duty, but a lot of pride,” Caldwell said. “We were very diversified soldiers.”
The time with guests wasn’t always glorious, however.
“At one point, I was standing guard during dinner. I was in an area where there was a lot of food. I could see everyone, but they couldn’t see me. General Bonesteel’s aide came by and asked if I’d like to have a steak and baked potato. I was more than happy. I was used to the chow hall and that food is horrible,” Caldwell said. “He brought me my plate and then led me to a nearby closet. I was put in the closet and a curtain was closed behind me. The food didn’t taste so good after that. It was like I was expected to possibly give my life to protect these people, but, yet, I am not good enough to eat in their presence.”
There were also many times in which things went south, raising tensions and putting the guard on constant alert. These times were often caused by issues arising in the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone).
“Many times, North Koreans would cross the DMZ and we went from Class A Uniforms to fatigues and battle gear. One minute, we would be in a parade and an hour later we may be in a rice paddy, setting up a perimeter. It was a diversified job that we took a lot of pride in.”
While Caldwell’s job of protecting special guests through the honor guard was of high importance, he says that he gives all honor to those who served, but never made it back home.
“Veterans don’t often like to talk about themselves, but I do it because I want to honor those who never made it back. I’m not special, though, we all have the same feeling; the true heroes are those who gave their lives. We all know some. I can’t even go to see the Vietnam wall, because it really tears me up.”
While he said his job was gratifying, and he wouldn’t take back his decision to serve his country, he says that he would probably do things a little differently, if given the chance.
“I took infantry training with my unit and it was nine weeks of hell. The last day I saw them was the day before we were set to leave. I was called to the first sergeant’s office. He asked if I had a brother. When I answered yes, they pulled my order. The last I saw of my unit was then, and I didn’t get to see many of them after that. It really bothers me, because I was supposed to be one of them. I think if I had to do it over, I’d probably lie and say I don’t have a brother in Vietnam. Every soldier wants to be with his brother and his comrades.”
Caldwell said he considered reenlisting, but took advice from his brother, and decided against going in again.
“Infantry soldiers in Vietnam didn’t have it very good, and I was told that chances of me returning wouldn’t be very high,” he said.
Coming back was also hard on the veteran.
“I suppose, like the Vietnam vets, we came home to raise our families and never really talked about it. I definitely wasn’t ashamed of my time in the service, but it was tough being somewhere and hearing someone talk about veterans being children killers. I just kept quiet and I didn’t talk about it.”
Caldwell said that he talks about his time across seas now, because he believes service is something to be honored. He believes to deny the honor to the military is to treat those killed in action without honor, so he continues their legacies in his work.
After the military, Caldwell went to work for Norfolk Southern Railroad, where he worked for 23 years, before an accident caused him to retire early.
To this day, Caldwell serves veterans through his work at the American Legion, where he has been for 47 years, and currently serves as commander of the Lucasville post. He also provides military service rites and is vice president of the Southern Ohio War Memorial.
Reach Joseph Pratt at 740-353-3101, ext. 1932, or by Twitter @JosephPratt03.
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