Lonsberry: My Columns on the Death of Gary Beikirch


 Gary Beikirch died the day after Christmas. I believe he was the noblest Rochesterian of his generation. I wrote a column the day he died, an obituary for his family, a eulogy, and a column about the funeral. They are bundled together here, in that order, for convenience. I hope they are useful. Not for how they were written, but who they were written about.

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

        Deo 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 Deo 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, Deo 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 my 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 Deo and Elmer Heindl to collect him.

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

        Because I suspect the labor 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 polished 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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Gary Burnell Beikirch died at home with his sweetheart and family by his side on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, December 26, 2021.

        Mr. Beikirch, 74, was a resident of Greece, New York.

        He was a husband, father and grandfather.

        He was also a Christian minister, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

        That medal, presented to him at the White House by President Nixon, was for action at Camp Dak Seang, Vietnam, on April 1, 1970. A Green Beret medic, serving with Bravo Company of the 1st Special Forces of the 5th Special Forces Group, Sergeant Beikirch was wounded repeatedly over several hours as he worked to defend the camp and tend to wounded American and Vietnamese soldiers. He carried more than one of these men to safety while administering immediate life-saving care to them, and while facing direct enemy rifle and mortar fire. Eventually, his injuries were so grievous as to paralyze his lower body, at which point he directed a Montagnard teen-ager – a beloved comrade named Deo – to carry and drag him to unmanned gun positions and to wounded soldiers needing his care.

        Mr. Beikirch’s injuries required months of hospitalization and therapy, and he was never completely free of their impact upon his body. Decades later, while operating on him for cancer, surgeons were amazed at the wartime damage to his internal organs.

        Mr. Beikirch recounted his war experiences, and the battle back to emotional stability afterword, in the acclaimed 2020 biography “Blaze of Light.” There and elsewhere he told of being a college student adrift, literally living in a cave in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It took love to get him out of that cave, he said, and he found that love in Loreen Wheeler, a young single mother who noticed him in town and left a note for him at the post office.

        She became his battle buddy, his Lolly and, inseparable over 46 years of marriage, she was lying beside him, holding him, when he passed away.

        Theirs was a Christian marriage of love and joy, dedicated to God, family and country. Their children are Stephanie (Robert) Zimmerli, Stephen Beikirch and Sarah (Andrew) Hinds. They have 14 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

        Their grandchildren are: Katelynn Umstetter; Mallory, James and Phoebe Zimmerli; Annabelle, Elisabeth, Timothy, Joseph, Esther, Levi and Lydia Hinds; and Madeline, Reagan and Garrett Beikirch. Their great-grandson is Noah Umstetter.

        Mr. Beikirch was the son of George W. Beikirch and Norma L. (Burnell Beikirch) Schwartz, both of whom are deceased. His mother primarily raised him, with a stepfather, George W. Schwartz, who is also deceased. Mr. Beikirch was born in the City of Rochester, New York, and almost died there at age 2 when he fell out of a window in his family’s second-story apartment on Genesee Park Boulevard. Mr. Beikirch has one sibling, a brother, Larry, who was named by Mr. Beikirch, after his best friend from school.

        Mr. Beikirch served for more than 30 years as a guidance counselor in the Greece Central School District, from which he himself had graduated. There, he shaped the lives of untold thousands of students, many of whom did not know of his wartime service. Their tales of gratitude and love for this wise man are legendary.

        Mr. Beikirch was involved in various Christian ministries, including one to the inmates of Groveland Correctional Facility.

        Mr. Beikirch was also active in veterans’ affairs, and was one of the founders of the Veterans Outreach Center in Rochester. He was the chaplain of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, spoke to hundreds of military and veterans groups across the country, and counseled innumerable veterans grappling with the emotional toll of their service. In 1982, he and other veterans returned to Vietnam to talk with officials there about Americans missing in action, and about the fate of Amerasian children. The next year, to honor Americans who served in Southeast Asia, Mr. Beikirch and a group of other Vietnam veterans parachuted into Death Valley and ran 100 miles across the desert.

        As a Medal of Honor recipient, Mr. Beikirch attended many affairs of state, usually with his wife. They took each of their children in turn to presidential inaugurations. He sat in the front row at the White House when local soldier David Bellavia was presented the Medal of Honor. Military and civilian parks and buildings are named in his honor.

        Calling hours will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, January 7, 2022, at First Bible Baptist Church at 990 Manitou Road in Hilton, New York, to which the Beikirchs belonged for more than 20 years. A celebration of Mr. Beikirch’s life will be held at the church at 10 Saturday morning, January 8, 2022.

All are welcome, and the service will be live streamed.

Donations may be made in Mr. Beikirch’s honor to the Veterans Outreach Center.

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When Gary Beikirch was a young man, he, like Moses, did violence to protect his brethren.

When Gary Beikirch was an old man, he, like Moses, guided his brethren through their wilderness of loss.

And he, like Moses, has looked over into the promised land, where we will one day go. And he, like Moses, has been taken to his God, the Father of us all.

That’s how it goes with prophets, the prophets we are all called to be. There is sacrifice and service, driven by love and faith, and it uses up all we are and all the days we live.

Like it did with Gary Beikirch, who we gather today to honor and remember.

But like the angels told the women who came to tend the body of Jesus: “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” And why do we share our memories in the spirit of grief? Yes, Gary Beikirch is gone, but only from us, not from the love of God or the reality of life, eternal life, the life and destiny for which we were created and born.

“If in this life only we have hope in Christ,” Paul wrote, “we are of all men most miserable.”

But our hope, our assurance, is in the next life, and so we rejoice – that such a man as Gary Beikirch was born, that we were blessed to have him in our lives, and that he has died a righteous man. And we are firm in our faith that no righteous man dies before his time, but goes when he is called, to labor where he is needed, in the fields of love and service which await us on the other side.

Gary Beikirch was an American boy, a son of New York, a kid who listened to the “Ballad of the Green Berets” on the radio, and went on to wear one on his head. “These are men, America’s best,” the nation knew, and he was one, he’d proven it and earned the right, with silver wings upon his chest. And a half century later, when the address line on an email said “sfmedic,” you knew it was Gary Beikirch, and you knew he still wore the beret in his heart.

But like others in God’s service, getting where the Lord needed him meant a passage through hell. A time in the wilderness. A test from the devil.

To sit at pharaoh’s right hand, and to save his family from famine, Joseph had to be sold into slavery. He had to face a horror of darkness to find his mission of light. And so it was with Gary Beikirch. To get to his lifetime of service, he had to pass through the portal of Dak Seang. The path to his promised land led through the hellfire of the Central Highlands. He could not have known at the choke point of trial where this path from the Lord would lead, or that it even was a path from the Lord, all he could do was survive the moment, live the moment, and go forward with faith.

Moses met the Lord in a burning bush; Gary Beikirch met him in a hospital bed.

And everything he was for all the years after grew out of that experience and carried its influence. As a husband, as a father, as a grandfather and friend. A teacher, a counselor, a pastor and brother. As an old man with a funny mustache who wore a medal around his neck. As a follower of Christ and a waver of the flag. A man who kept his oaths – to his God, his family and his country. A man so strong he could be meek. A man so loving he will never be forgotten.

Not by his family, not by his friends, not by his brothers and sisters in boots, not by the historians who study our bravest and best.

Gary Beikirch was a great man. But it is not enough to celebrate the great, we must emulate them. If we knew or knew of Gary Beikirch, and are no better for it, then we have failed. If we look at him without taking away things that we can do to make ourselves more like him, they we have failed him and ourselves and the Father of us all.

“Let your light so shine before men,” the Lord said, “that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”

Gary Beikirch did that. That’s why you loved him.

And on this day we say goodbye to him, we must look more closely at ourselves.

To make sure we are doing the same thing. To make sure we are going the same place.

To make sure we are worthy of this great man and the love he had for us.

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At the head of the casket, standing my half-hour watch, a Coast Guard officer beside me and two Legion men at the feet, I felt a brief part of it, the family of man and the brotherhood of arms.

And for two hours more, in the sanctuary beside my son, with song and speech and spirit and sermon, we were the tribe of the moment, an ad hoc clan, bound in ritual and ceremony, partakers of some sacred communion, the mourners of Gary Beikirch.

In the front on the left was a man from Iwo Jima, the medal around his neck for 75 years. In the front on the right was the congressman, representing the United States and its people. In the center for several rows were his family, people you could mostly tell by their look, and by their spirit. The grandchildren would stand and tell stories that told of a loving and purposeful patriarch. A daughter and some grandchildren would stand to sing and play and eyes across the sanctuary would tear up.

In the center sat the bride, his battle buddy for almost 50 years, in whose arms he died.

In the congregation were two white-haired men, one tall and one short. The tall one came in on a helicopter on 1 April 1970, to Dak Seang, under heavy fire. More than 20 American aircraft had been shot down in the siege, and every expectation was that this one would be, too. But they sent it in to get this man Beikirch who was shot all to hell and they wanted a man who would bring him out, no matter what. The tall man volunteered. It was the short man who carried him to the helicopter as the RPGs whistled past.

It was a moment, a brief exchange, three Green Berets in the Central Highlands. For 15 years the short man didn’t know whether Beikirch had lived. Then, walking around a corner in New York City, come to watch a parade, there he was. The tall man likewise was ignorant of Beikirch’s fate, until years later reading a magazine article about a Medal of Honor recipient, he had the pieces fall in place and yelled out to his wife that this was the guy from the helicopter, the guy he had risked his life to save.

The tall man and the short man had no time for farewells when the Huey dusted off, but their first meeting since, their reunion at the funeral, was warm and instant and strong.

The war hero’s funeral was infused with a recognition of the combat veteran’s burden. Some call it PTSD, some call it guilt – of the killer and of the survivor – but it can rage through the life of a veteran, leaving damage like a tornado. Those who stayed at home only see the damage, those who went to war have faced the storm. For brief moments in the remarks of Nick Stefanovic, you could see distant flashes of the storm’s rage. He was a Marine who came home broken and closed, and he told of Gary Beikirch’s patient but persistent efforts to open him up. In war, Beikirch ran from wounded man to wounded man, bringing aid. It was the same way in peace. And in Stefanovic’s words you saw proof of Beikirch’s gift.

Like in the hall, where Bob Rapone stood, pins and patches on his hat and vest, redness around his eyes.

“I went to Gary,” he said, “and I asked him, ‘How do we justify what we did over there?’

“And he said, ‘We don’t. God does.’”

God heals everything. And saves everyone. Everyone who will.

That was the message of the service, in the megachurch. The county executive spoke, and did well. The Special Forces colonel spoke, and did well. The author and the sister-in-law and the family friend spoke, and did well. And the preacher got up and invited all to do good.

That was part of the deal. Gary Beikirch had planned his funeral for a half a year, as the cancer had its way, and he wanted all who gathered to be called to the altar. So the retired pastor, George Grace, got up and preached. Artfully, cleverly, passionately, and invited all to come to Christ.

And maybe some did.

Beside the grave, in the frigid winter sun, Britt Slabinski stood up, a thin man with the medal around his neck, earned as a SEAL in the cold atop a snowy mountain in Afghanistan. There had been a reception for recipients, he said, an annual affair, formal in white tuxedos, a bunch of heroes lined up. Slabinski stepped out of line to saunter up to Beikirch, an ordained minister, and ask him how long it would take him to get ready to perform a wedding. Two weeks. No. I mean right now. And so it was that a few minutes later, leading his unsuspecting fiancé with a “Come with me,” Slabinski and his betrothed walked into a room where waited Gary Beikirch and a couple of friends.

She beamed as he told the story.

And a few minutes later, after the rifles fired, the burial detail lifted the flag from the casket and smartly folded it. The sergeant of the guard, with a Green Beret and a 70s mustache, looked and tucked and pulled and inspected, and then shook his head “no.” It was not acceptable. Not for this soldier. Not for this flag. Not for the 5th Special Forces. So they unfolded it, above Gary Beikirch in repose, and folded it again. And they got it right.

These nine young men, all seemingly in their 20s, all in Green Berets, all bedecked with been theres and done thats. The sort of men Gary Beikirch devoted his life to. The sort of man Gary Beikirch was.

They carried him to his grave. They fired the rifle salute. They folded the flag.

They did the last duty of a comrade.

And family led his bride away, dazed.

Oh, life goes on. And at the reception after, the vitality of the grandchildren, the robust Beikirch buzz, was proof of that. Both God and Darwin say a man is judged by his progeny, and Gary Beikirch was certainly a success in that regard. He blessed the world through the people he counseled, and through the people he raised.

So the children ate and laughed and the church table enjoyed fellowship while the soldier table visited quietly and at the table where the men with white hair talked about 1 April 1970 the wives looked on and heard echoes of the storm.

And the sweetheart stood dazed, family and friends around her, bereft of her life and love.

Awaiting the promised peace.


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