I’ll never forget the day I heard my younger brother, Wieland, was killed in Vietnam. It was a day like no other. No family should have to feel what my mother, other brother, Aaron and I did that day. And yet so many do, every day, every year.
When Wieland was born, Mom wanted to name him Jimmy, but Dad named him Wieland – unfortunately after his favorite beer. Mom was upset, but there was nothing she could do. His name was already on the birth certificate.
As boys, when Wieland and I got into fights, Mom would make us sit down in chairs across from each other. We’d be huffing and puffing, our cheeks red, our necks wet with perspiration, and mom would say, “Now sit there and look at each other, and don’t say a word until I tell you to move.” Wieland and I would sit there and glare at each other. Before long one of us would start to giggle, and then we’d bust up laughing. In a matter of minutes, we couldn’t even remember what we had been fighting about.
Years later, when I was discharged from the Air Force and before I became world karate champion, I would supplement my income from Northrop Aircraft by teaching karate classes in my parents’ backyard. My first students were my brothers – Aaron, who was 9 years old, and Wieland, who was 19. Wieland was the outgoing Norris brother and he excelled at everything he did.
Soon word began to spread around the neighborhood about the Norris brothers, three fair-haired boys doing karate. We started getting invitations from the Rotary Club and other civic organizations to put on martial arts demonstrations. Aaron was a cute kid, so we had a demonstration in which he threw us “big guys” around. Audiences loved it.
‘I’m going to miss you, be careful’
At the height of the Vietnam War, both of my brothers, Wieland and Aaron, enlisted in the U.S. Army. As a veteran myself, I understood their desire to serve, and I concurred with their decision to enlist. After all, the U.S. Air Force turned my life around. It helped me get on the right path. Maybe the Army would do the same for my brothers.
Aaron was stationed in Korea, and Wieland was sent to Vietnam. As Wieland headed off to Nam, I hugged and kissed him and said, “I’m going to miss you. Be careful.”
In 1970, I was refereeing a tournament in California when I heard an announcement over the loud speaker: “Chuck Norris, you have an urgent call.” I hustled over to the phone. I recognized the muffled voice of my mother-in-law, and she was crying. “What’s wrong, Evelyn?” I asked. “Your brother Wieland has been killed in Vietnam.”
If I had been kicked in the stomach by a dozen karate champions at the same time, it could not have impacted me more. I staggered back away from the phone as though that would somehow make Evelyn’s words untrue. It didn’t.
I hung up the phone, moving in what felt like slow motion. For a long time I couldn’t function. I simply sat in shock, thinking about my little brother, Wieland, my best friend whom I would never see again in this life. Right there, in front of anyone who cared to see, I wept uncontrollably.
I learned later that Wieland had been killed while leading his squad through dangerous enemy territory. He had spotted an enemy patrol laying a trap and was trying to warn his men when the Vietcong cut him down.
When Wieland had been 12 years old, he’d once had a premonition that he would not live to be 28. Wieland died June 3, 1970, one month before his 28th birthday.
I tried to help mom the best I could, but hers was a pain particular to parents of war – something I would never fully understand. I still miss my brother terribly – we all do. I think of Wieland often and am comforted only by the certainty that one day we will be giving him a great big hug in heaven.
All gave some – some gave all
After I was blessed in March to be bestowed as an “Honorary Marine” by Commandant Gen. James Conway in Washington, D.C., my wife, Gena, and I went to the Vietnam Memorial to reflect again upon my brother’s sacrifice. As I stood soberly looking at his name etched for all time on that wall, I said, “This one’s for you too brother.”
Honoring our fallen heroes is not something we do once, but continually in many ways. A year ago my brother Aaron and I were even able to pay tribute to Wieland’s heroism on “War Stories with Oliver North – The Siege of Firebase Ripcord.” It was to Wieland that I also dedicated all my “Missing in Action” films.
It’s fitting for a soldier like Wieland that Memorial Day falls every year a week or so before the anniversary of the day he gave his life for the cause of freedom. Though we didn’t win the war in Vietnam, my brother did not die in vain, just like no soldier does today. Whether it’s for our freedom or another’s, the words of Jesus are true for all, “There is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for another.”
Hundreds more of our troops have given their lives since I was in Iraq at the invitation of the Marine Corps in November of 2006, and so we add those valiant warriors to the names of those we commemorate on this Memorial Day. We will never forget their service or sacrifice – men like Pfc. Michael Pursel, Spc. Joel Lewis, Sgt. Jason Harkins, Cpl. Matthew Alexander and a man who deserves more honor and respect than he gave me, which was a great deal, Cpl. Anthony M. Bradshaw. Their combat within modern city lines speaks even further to their degree of selflessness – something well-documented in the new book, “Forests of Steel,” by Col. John Antal and Lt. Col. Bradley Gericke.
And to all of our living service men and women, we salute you, pray for you and hope for all of your safe return. But if, by destiny, like Wieland, you should breathe your last on the battlefield, rest assured your sacrifice will never be forgotten. Until then, fight the fight, keep the faith and press on for the prize!
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