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'Freedom is not free:' Vietnam War veteran remembers fallen soldiers on Memorial Day

3 weeks 5 days 8 hours ago Monday, May 27 2024 May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024 4:45 PM May 27, 2024 in News
Source: WBRZ

BATON ROUGE — This Memorial Day, people nationwide remember and honor all the brave men and women who died while defending their nation and freedoms.

After all this time, Sgt. Gil Lerma says he still remembers everything from the Vietnam War.

Following the commencement of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson deployed the first U.S. ground troops to Vietnam. More than 58,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam.

Lerma joined the Marine Corps in 1968, not knowing he'd end up in the war zone.

He was 18 when he was deployed and he still reflects on those unimaginable experiences to this day.

"Sometimes you carry that over for a while, once you leave there you carry it over into your regular life. I lost a lot of friends over there. There were times that I was there, you may have heard the expression that you can smell death in the air...you can. I experienced that more than once," Lerma said.

Lerma keeps a journal filled with the names, rifle numbers and serial numbers of every person he worked with in the war. He goes through the names, pointing out who's still around and who didn't make it back. He says he can't count how many deaths he witnessed.

"We went out with a full platoon...which is 60-odd people. We came back with maybe 20," Lerma said.

This Memorial Day, he's remembering a few of those names.

”He was a good friend of mine. His name was Sonny Lowe. and another one, Paton from New York, Sonny was from Virginia," Lerma said. "I lost both of those friends, and it was very hard. I still think about them."

Lerma says he saw too much and lost too many. The hardest part, he said, was the realization that he made it out and his friend didn't.

"You don't think about these things when they happen, you think about them afterwards. Jesus Christ, I didn't realize this happened," he said. "That's when it hits you. I saw many of my guys, including myself, break down and cry. it happens."

After months of living in terror and a lifetime remembering it, Lerma says Memorial Day is not just outside fun. He said it's about remembering who gave you this freedom.

He says the real heroes are the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“The heroes are the ones who didn't come back. I remember them. A lot of sacrifice went on over there. Freedom is not free, and the reason you're enjoying today is because of people who gave their sacrifice for this country so you could have what you have today," Lerma said.

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