LONSBERRY: Gary Beikirch, The Noblest Rochesterian of His Generation


I don’t know how it is exactly on the other side, but I suspect the Lord sent Dao and Elmer Heindl to collect him.

               Dao was a teenager, a Montagnard, who carried a paralyzed Gary Beikirch from gun position to gun position, wounded soldier to wounded soldier, and threw his own body over the mangled Green Beret to protect him. They fought together until the end, on April 1,1970, the date cast in Gary Beikirch’s challenge coin. But for another 50 years, Beikirch never spoke of the siege at Dak Seang, or of his service in Vietnam, without mentioning Dao with reverence, gratitude and love.

               A boy, who went on ahead, some half century ago.

               Elmer Heindl was a Catholic priest, arguably the most-decorated chaplain of World War II, and the patron saint of Rochester veterans. He fought his war the way Gary Beikirch fought his, with service to others foremost, counting people he’d saved, not people he’d killed. And when the shooting stopped, he came home and spent the rest of his life a parish priest and the chaplain to those who had fought their nation’s battles.

               He died an old man, his service at home rivaling his service in war.

               That’s who I suspect the Lord sent to gather Gary Beikirch home. Two men he loved, and who loved him back.

               This afternoon, the day after Christmas, his Savior’s birth celebrated one last time in this life, Gary Beikirch passed away. The noblest Rochesterian of his generation, a man beloved by countless thousands, he truly lived in service to God, family and country.

               Not just in uniform, but for every day of his life.

               And now he is free, reunited with his brothers and sisters on The Wall, bivouacking with all who have seen the glory of the Lord in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps, or builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps. Gary Beikirch made history, and now he is part of history.

               And it falls to us to wonder that God ever made such a man, and that we would have been blessed to know him.

               A blue-collar kid from Rochester, he went in the Army and became a Green Beret because that was the thing to do when you wanted to be the very best. A Green Beret medic. A guy who could kill you or save your life, depending on what you needed – one of the best warriors walking the earth. In country, he fell in love with the Mountain People of Vietnam, living with them and fighting beside them. And then one day all hell broke loose. And he fought and he fought and he fought. And he was wounded and wounded and wounded. And when his body wouldn’t work anymore, Dao carried him around, and Gary Beikirch saved everybody he could.

               And then he was alone.

               And he clung to life. In the mud, in the Huey, in the hospital in Japan. He clung to life, and refused to die, and began talking to God.

               He was living in a cave when they came after him to go to the White House.

               He was living in a cave, studying at a college, wrestling his demons in the loneliness of the night.

               And they got him down to DC and stood him up in front of the president and hung the Medal of Honor around his neck.

               And back to the cave he went, in the cold and the damp, the medal wrapped up in his kit. He met a girl from town and they were married long before she found the medal and asked what it was.

               And it was more years before he would wear it. Years of foment and turmoil, of faith and prayer, of building himself in the eyes of God and man. Until finally he knew why, and he knew his duty, and he knew that he must now be as willing to live for others as he had once been willing to die for them.

               That was the Gary Beikirch most people knew.

               The school counselor, the religious volunteer, the veterans’ advocate, the chaplain of the Medal of Honor society. The kindest, most gracious man most of us had ever met.

               And I had the honor of meeting him. And of, like everyone else who ever knew him, calling him friend.

               Gary Beikirch was a man who embraced the Lord’s command to love his neighbor. To cross his path was to be made better by the experience, and to feel special because of this man’s attentions. He had a spirit you could feel, a divinity to him. You knew in your soul that he was a man of God.

               He was a war hero who awed you more by how he lived than by how he fought.

               I talked with him in a radio studio, and I sat behind him in the East Room. I heard him pray, and I met dozens of people he taught. I heard him describe the day he earned the medal, but I never heard him mention himself. He was humble and loving and strong, and he never spoke long without mentioning the Lord and his wife. And he was tireless in the service of those who had worn our nation’s uniform, understanding better than any of the rest of us the price that service extracts, even long years after discharge.

               I was hiking with my son when Gary Beikirch died. We had just posed at the top of a mile-long climb, holding up his challenge coin, a memento which my daughter carried to war, and which has been with our family in adventures across the country. In our lore, he has been a man of inspiration, for courage on the battlefield, and faithfulness in life.

               And now he has gone to his reward.

               I don’t know exactly how it is on the other side, but I suspect the Lord sent Dao and Elmer Heindl to collect him.

               Because he would know them as brothers, and because they have work to do.

               Because I suspect the work of love and salvation continues on the other side, and that a man who tended warriors on this side of the veil would be ideally suited to tend warriors on the other side of the veil.

               Maybe the first thing he heard over there was the call for a medic, to treat wounds in the world of spirits, to heal not bodies but souls.

               Gary Beikirch spent a half century in the refiner’s fire, culminating in the last trial of his life. He was a mighty instrument in the hand of the Lord.

               That’s how it was here, and that’s how I suspect it is there.

               And while I mourn his passing and his family’s grief, I rejoice for the afflicted in the great beyond, who now have Sergeant Beikirch by their side.


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