Over coffee at the Torch Lake Market and on the front page of the Elk Rapids News and on his daughter’s Facebook page the word was out. Sonny Szejbach was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. I would show you a picture of Sonny’s medal, except that as it turns out, he did not even know about it until last month. The second highest honor in the gift of a grateful nation, the Distinguished Service Cross is awarded for extraordinary heroism. It’s not something that normally passes unnoticed. Of course, there was a lot going on back then. Memory is a tricky thing in the fog of war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning, back in 1967.
Sonny Szejbach graduated from Elk Rapids High School, where he had been voted Best Dressed. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows him.) No doubt in recognition of his sartorial splendor, Uncle Sam invited him to wear the sharply-pressed uniform of his country. His father was not pleased, but Sonny thought he’d just go ahead and do it. It seemed like the right thing. Maybe even an adventure. Four or five other guys from The Team were joining up. The rest had gone off to college.
He was drafted in April. By September, 1968, Specialist Four Clarence L. Szejbach, radio operator, was “in country,” which, as everyone who is of a certain age knows, means that he had arrived in Vietnam. He would be there for ten months.
In December part of his platoon was cut off. Sonny and a couple of other guys thought they could see a way to pull them out. They did it, it worked, and in April the Army presented Sonny with a Bronze Star. He remembers that. He didn’t think it was a big deal, because anybody would have done just what he did. It was the right thing to do, he could see how to do it, and he did it.
Now we arrive at the crux of the matter. It is June 6, 1969, at Fire Support Base Crook, Tay Ninh Province, Republic of Vietnam. The day Sonny lost his right hand. His commanding officer, who recommended him for the Distinguished Service Cross, described it this way:
Exposing himself to the rain of enemy fire, he assisted in resupplying ammunition to troops in the bunkers. When the enemy blew gaps in the wire defenses and attempted to breach the perimeter, he helped organize and lead a reaction force which beat back the hostile surge . . . . a wounded enemy soldier threw an anti-tank grenade at the company commander. Specialist Szejbach unhesitatingly moved in front of the officer, deflected the armed weapon, and then picked it up and threw it. The grenade exploded as it left his hand, inflicting severe wounds on him.
It could have happened that way. Sonny does not remember being a hero. What he remembers is this:
When I got hit—when we came under fire we were really exposed— I was out in the open, but the force of the explosion threw me into some bushes. I could see my hand flopped back and I knew it was bad. My neck was the worst, though—shrapnel opened the carotid artery–but that medic—that medic was there, and you know, those guys weren’t doctors or anything but that medic kept me from bleeding to death right there.
My commanding officer was on the radio calling for a helicopter—”I’ve got four guys down, get in here”—and they told him they couldn’t get in without getting shot down and he told them the Viet Cong would shoot them down or he’d do it himself, get in here. And they did. I remember being in the helicopter. My neck was cold, really cold, as if the cold was inside me.
And then I was at, I think, Bien Hoa airbase hospital. My hand was bandaged up and I couldn’t tell if there was a hand in there or not. I asked. The orderly said “I’ll go get someone.” So I knew.
Usually amputees were flown right back to the States for treatment, but I couldn’t be transported at that altitude because of the neck wounds. They island-hopped me to Japan, and I was there for about a month.
The Army sent Ed and Loretta Szejbach a Western Union Telegram dated 9 June 1969 informing them that their son had been seriously wounded. Sonny called them from Japan. He was definitely going to live.
When I was well enough to go home, I had orders to report to the VA hospital in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. I walked into the Amputee Ward and the nurse said “I can’t remember ever seeing anyone walk in here before.” It didn’t take me long to see what she meant. That’s when I knew I wasn’t one of the worst off guys. I was humbled.
He’d sworn he would never wear “one of those ugly hooks” – but he decided they were pretty useful items. With one of those he’d manage just fine. He set to work learning how to use it to best advantage.
Meanwhile, the war ground on and the paperwork got filed and what with one thing and another, no one ever thought to mention to Specialist Four Szejbach that he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. When he was discharged in March, 1970, he barely read his DD Form 214. It said he was done with his war, and honorably so, and he could go home now and have the whole rest of his life and that sounded pretty good to him.
And so it has been. Sonny came back to Elk Rapids and went back to work in the family meat market and bought himself a car—a snazzy four-speed. The salesman asked him how he was going to shift. Drill a hole in the gearshift lever. He met Chris and the next thing you know they were getting married at St. Francis in Traverse City. He bought a boat that he named Captain Hook. He and Chris danced to Bachman-Turner Overdrive on the deck as Torch Lake glittered. They raised three daughters to glowing maturity. The daughters brought home good sons-in-law, and in due course produced a flock of the most beautiful grandchildren anyone could ever hope to have. Ten years ago Sonny and Chris bought the Torch Lake Market and made it a magnet for the whole community. Now they’re looking forward to retirement.
Here we get to the part about how Sonny found out about his medal. There is still shrapnel in Sonny’s left hand, shrapnel in his cheek. It migrates over time. Chunks of metal that started out here have moved there, and it’s a painful nuisance. Besides, that left hand has done double duty for a long time, and it’s beginning to feel the strain. And then there’s this. In the last few years there have been tremendous advances in hand prosthesis technology. Sonny’s prosthesis technician recommended he try one of the new options, the be-bionic v-2. (It is very cool. There are videos at that link.) The new prosthesis could relieve some of the demands on the left hand.
In order to have the grateful nation supply such a wonder, Sonny needed to complete some paperwork. The Veterans Administration has paid for all his stainless steel hook prostheses, but he’s always had insurance for most of the other health care for himself and his family, so he’d never “registered with the system.” He needed some help sorting all this out, and he found it at the Antrim County Veterans Office, where Deb Peters guided him through the maze. Fill this out, assemble these documents, sign here. It was in the course of requesting updates to his discharge file that Sonny learned about the Distinguished Service Cross. Imagine his surprise.
One day soon, quite possibly in June, the Army will present Clarence L. Szejbach with his Distinguished Service Cross. This is what it will look like when it is finally pinned to his chest.
There will be a ceremony. There will be a party to celebrate. And then that will be that, and life—rich, full, life with all its surprises—will go on. That nifty new prosthesis is in the works.
A lot of us Around Here think the medal is pretty big news, but according to Sonny and Chris, the most important part of the story is that Antrim County has a very fine service in its locally-supported Veterans Affairs Office. If you are a veteran, or a member of a veteran’s family, they encourage you to get in touch with Deb Peters at (231) 533-8499. She knows the system, she’s good at advocating for veterans, and every case is important to her.