He jumped on a grenade: Vietnam veterans remember sacrifice that allowed them to live.
If there ever were such a thing as an ordinary day in war, May 27, 1969, was it.
Army Sgt. Charles Fleek, a 21-year-old Northern Kentuckian who hadn't finished high school, was in charge of 10 men. They were on alert for the enemy. Told to engage if the fight seemed fair.
His men called Fleek "Hillbilly." In the Ohio River town of Petersburg in Boone County, where he grew up, he was known as "Chalkie." He had been ordered off light duty afforded to short-timers about to be sent home. This was one last mission.
The working-class distillery employee was drafted like the rest of his men. But he had a by-the-book manner that worked to protect his men. He was on his 308th day in Vietnam. They all wore loose-fitting uniforms with no underwear or socks to be more effective in the subtropical climate.
On that day in 1969, the men of Charlie Company were sent to wait in ambush in the dry heat in an abandoned French rubber plantation that was a free-fire zone, an area in which U.S. troops were told they could shoot anything that moved. Explosions could be heard in the distance as other units drove the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers toward their position. It was after 4 p.m. Because the platoon, positioned in the Binh Duong Province about 50 miles north of Saigon, was outnumbered, orders were not to fire without reason.
Fleek noticed when a pair of NVA soldiers spotted the ambush. He yelled at his men to engage the enemy.
Fleek and his men opened fire.
The men were bunched unusually close to one another that day in a nearly U-shaped defense. Then, a grenade landed next to Fleek. Most of the men didn't see it. Fleek shouted a warning. Then he smothered the grenade with his body.
His body absorbed the blast, which shattered him. Five feet away, Pvt. Milton Johnson took his share of the explosion. A medic ran to help the dying sergeant.
Both of the injured were taken out by medivac. Fleek likely breathed his last in the helicopter. Johnson would die five days later.
For Fleek's uncommon valor, for his rushing toward his men instead of away from them, for giving his life for those of others, he was awarded the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. It was only one of 269 given for service in the Vietnam War.
“Hillbilly” “Chalkie” Fleek had died.
Forever after, to the rest of us, he would be known as a hero.
Fleek's face and his sacrifice come to mind every time George Kelly Jr., 71, sees his five children. On that May day in 1969, he was less than 10 feet from Fleek.
“I’ll just say that I’m grateful until I stop breathing. I’ll never stop thinking about him,” Kelly said.
The Denver man wonders what he would have done if the grenade had landed next to him.
Moura, 71, raised two sons on a bricklayer's salary. He is a grandfather.
Spc. 4th Class "Butch" Kosco of Stow, Ohio, kept firing that day as well.
He was awarded a Bronze Star, went home to the woman he’d married a month before being drafted and to the telephone company job he had previously held. With his wife, he raised a son and daughter. He has four grandchildren.
When he thinks of Fleek, he notes again how much time the sergeant had already spent in country and how he was almost home.
Dennis Harvey was about 30 yards away when Fleek lunged on top of the grenade. He heard him scream.
Harvey watched medic Richard Kerkhoff try desperately to save Fleek.
Kerkhoff broke down, Harvey remembers, after Fleek was taken away by medivac. He must have known there was little chance he would live.
Kerkhoff died a little more than three weeks later in another firefight.
Harvey, who is 70, has both their names, along with nine other names of people killed in the platoon in a year's time, in a room in his Saginaw, Michigan, home.
He works there every day.
Fleek wrote to a childhood friend early in his tour. The letter is dated Sept. 28, 1968.
"I sure will be glad to get back home and see everybody," he said. "I didn't know I had so many friends till I came over here."
He told his friends a little about Vietnam and about his own faith, calling God his point man.
Two days after Fleek died, his brother Wayne spotted two men in Army uniforms in front of the house, said Tracy, Sgt. Fleek's sister-in-law.
Fleek's parents were still in bed when Wayne invited the Army officers, telegram in hand, into the family's Front Street house.
"When they told him, Wayne passed out or just dropped to the ground," Tracy said. "He was just devastated."
The week he died, 242 Americans gave their lives for their country. Life magazine printed the pictures of the dead, "to put a face on the war." Fleek was among them.
Sgt. Fleek was buried in Petersburg Cemetery. In August 2018, a stretch of Ky. 20 that travels downhill toward a river valley was named in his honor.
Fleek’s father, Wilford, never again was able to let a meal pass without his own show of loss, his own remembrance of his son: Every time the family said the blessing when they sat down to eat, he cried.
Chris Mayhew, Cincinnati Enquirer, Published 10:08 p.m. ET May 22, 2019 | Updated 9:56 p.m. ET May 23, 2019