It takes a lot to get the undivided attention of a bunch of 14 and 15 year olds. But the well-dressed older man, with the long, grey moustache managed to do it.
It was because of the medal around his neck, and the way he talked about Deo—the teenager who helped him survive the Vietnam War.
Gary Beikirch stood in front of the class at Riverview High School, and talked about his days as a combat medic in the war. It wasn’t the bullets and the battles he spoke of passionately, it was the camaraderie. Especially with a 15 year old Vietnamese boy named Deo, who was his guide. He told the students about the trust and the bond the two of them built throughout the war.
Then he got to the day of April 1, 1970. A bloody battle where many men died. While on the battlefield, Mr. Beikirch was shot three times, once in the spinal cord. Deo carried him from patient to patient so he could continue to do his work. Under heavy fire, the two of them continued to treat wounded soldiers.
At the end of the day, Deo died.
It was a pain Mr. Beikirch carries with him to this day.
He told the captivated students in Ms. Duran’s Language Arts class that, after the war, he had a hard time dealing with the pain. It was so bad, he packed up his measly possessions and lived in a cave for two years.
It was during that time he got communication from Washington, D.C. that he was to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He said he took no joy in the honor at that time. “I was in a cave trying to forget about the war,” he told the students. “Now they’re going to give me a medal for it”.
Looking around the room, the students shook their heads. Understanding his pain.
Mr. Beikirch said it was just about that time he made a choice to start living life again… To help him forget the pain and honor the sacrifice of Deo.
So he began speaking to students—trying to instill important values in them at a young age. He told the Riverview High students repeatedly, there is a big difference between success and significance. At one point he leaned into them and nearly whispered, “Do you have enough guts to live a significant life?”
When Mr. Beikirch was done speaking, he asked if anyone had any questions. He said no question was off limits.
From the back of the room a young boy named Dedrick slowly raised his hand.
“If Deo were still alive, what would you say to him today?”
The adults in the room gasped a bit at the weight of the question.
Mr. Beikirch paused for a moment, thinking. Finally he said, “It would be more than words. It would be actions to show how much I love him and appreciate him”.
When the bell rang, signaling the end of class. No one moved. Students inched toward the front of the class to shake Mr. Beikirch’s hand and take pictures.
The young boy, Dedrick, who asked such a poignant question was the one who lingered longest. As he was leaving the room, he was asked what he thought of Mr. Beikirch. He said, “It’s unbelievable he was here in my classroom and that I got to be this close with a person that really knows what life is about”.
More about Riverview High School: http://riverviewhs.mysdhc.org/
More about the Medal of Honor: @CMOHfoundation on Twitter