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Around the Foothills

'They revert back to the stories, Vietnam, Vietnam . . . .'

September 07, 1989|DOUG SMITH

Nineteen years and a few months after it was issued, U. S. Army General Order No. 6069 was carried out last week in a quiet ceremony on the third floor of a Glendale bank building, without anyone from the Army present.

The order awarded a Bronze Star to Sgt. Melvin R. Barnes, Company B, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division.

The award was based on Barnes' heroism in Vietnam, described in the order this way:

"While on a reconnaissance operation, elements of Company B came in contact with a large enemy force. Immediately, Sgt. Barnes placed his men in strategic fighting positions. When several friendly positions ran low on ammunition, Sgt. Barnes exposed himself to a hail of enemy fire as he moved through the contact area in order to replenish their supply."

The document was dated 30 May, 1970.

Barnes still wears a uniform today and is still a sergeant, though in a less ponderous organization--the Glendale Police Department. He still has a way of getting in the middle of things. The department awarded him its Silver Certificate in 1985 for going in a burning automobile to save a man and its Gold Star in 1987 for sneaking up on and disarming a deranged man who was brandishing a gun.

The department delivered his awards immediately. The Army was not so prompt. Barnes brought his Bronze Star order home from Vietnam, but because of what he thinks was a mix-up, he never could get the medal itself.

For a long time, he let it rest. But a few years ago, he decided to press the issue.

"They said, 'You don't deserve this. You don't have any orders,' " Barnes said. "I'd send them the orders showing that I did, then they said, 'We already sent you the medal.' It was almost like calling me a liar."

Barnes grew more persistent, still without success. Finally, last year, Barnes appealed to Glendale pol Allen E. Brandstater, the former young radical of the right who now, under a halo of gray hair, does consulting for mainstream Republicans and keeps a sharp eye out for examples of government's abusing the people.

Brandstater wrote letters to the secretary of the Army, U. S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) and Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale), saying simply, "This does not reflect well upon the United States Army or our Department of Defense."

Although Glendale's veteran congressman is not known for his legislative initiative, Moorhead proved the most alacritous in handling Sgt. Barnes' complaint.

He got the star and invited Barnes and his family to his office in Valley National Bank on Wednesday to receive it.

It was a quick ceremony. Chief of Police David J. Thompson came in uniform along with a couple of other brass. Barnes, taking time off from patrol, was also in uniform, which showed off his muscled build. His family only partly made it. Daughter Melissa announced that son Michael was with the Camry, which broke down in the street below.

After a few formal words were exchanged, most of the party dispersed. Moorhead and Barnes lingered several minutes in intimate reflection on the many ironies surrounding the unpopular war in Vietnam.

"I still remember this little old man, one day," Barnes said. "He must have been 80, 90 years old. I went into the hootch. Here I'm all camouflaged down. That little old man turned around. He could have been killed for this. We both sat down in the middle of this operation in his hootch and I had tea with this guy. Little things like that."

"Yeah," Moorhead said.

He recalled a congressional trip to Vietnam during which his guide fervently praised communism but, at the airport, asked Moorhead for a card and whispered in his ear:

"I want to get out of here and get to the United States someday and I want somebody I can look up."

Barnes recalled coming home.

"I remember flying into Philadelphia," he said. "I was on my way back to Los Angeles. I was in the waiting room. Some of these folks came up and spat on me because I was wearing a uniform. I couldn't understand that."

Moorhead pardoned the offenders.

"I don't think those people knew what they were doing," he said. "It was an emotional time. . . . Now they have responsible jobs and families."

Barnes talked about the vets he sees when he's on patrol.

"Some are very well," he said. "Others are just out roaming around. They always revert back to the stories, Vietnam, Vietnam, and that anger comes out and, a lot of times, that's the root of the problem."

"I think that the Vietnam Memorial has given them a feeling that, "Finally somebody recognizes what we did for our country,' " Moorhead said.

"I hope so, anyway," Barnes said.

An aide called Moorhead away.

Barnes joined his family at the car. After a short conference, he sent them in a patrol car to the Galleria and left the car there to resume his patrol.

When he returned later, he diagnosed the problem--a broken timing chain--and called a tow truck.

He should get a medal for that.

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