Wednesday, October 29, 2003
Captain Tom Metsker
Citadel graduate's heroic death ends in love story
BY JOSEPH L. GALLOWAY
This is a story about love and war. I've written many a story, and a couple of books, about wars and rumors of wars, but this is my first real love story. Like the war stories, it is something I have lived.
When the book that I co-authored with my friend and captain-in-battle, Lieutenant General (ret) Hal Moore, "We Were Soldiers Once and Young," was turned into a movie last year, millions came to know a great deal about the Battle of Landing Zone Xray in the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965.
If they watched closely and followed the main characters, they might have noticed a young Army Captain named Thomas C. Metsker who was Moore's battalion intelligence officer. Tom was wounded in the shoulder and ultimately ordered to board a Huey helicopter full of other wounded Americans.
He took the last seat in the overloaded chopper, then noticed a more severely wounded officer being carried toward the Huey. Tom got out, gave his place to Captain Ray LeFebvre, and, as he stood in the doorway, Tom Metsker was shot in the back by an enemy sniper. He fell forward into the helicopter, and, as it took off, Tom's legs dangled out of that bird. He was dead when that helicopter next touched ground.
Tom Metsker was a 1961 graduate of The Citadel, a native of Indianapolis, and I met him three days before he was killed when I marched with the 1st Battalion 7th U.S. Cavalry on a long, hot walk through the tangled bamboo thickets east of Plei Me Special Forces Camp.
During that day and night with Colonel Moore's battalion, I snapped a photograph of Moore's command group: the colonel, Sergeant Major Basil L. Plumley, Captain Greg Dillon, radio operator Bob Ouellette, Tom Metsker and a shotgun guard. It was the last photo taken of Tom.
In the movie, the first person back home to receive one of those terrible telegrams from the Army was Cathy LaPlante Metsker, Tom's sweetheart, who wore a miniature Citadel ring engraved inside with the words: "To My O.A.O." (One And Only).
There was someone else in that house who wasn't shown in the movie. A baby girl, Karen Doranne Metsker, who was just 17 months old and would never know her father, but -- like every child who has suffered such a loss in war -- would miss him forever.
Twenty-five years after these events, I wrote a cover article for U.S. News & World Report on a battle America had forgotten in a war it didn't really want to remember. It contained the details of how Tom Metsker died, giving his seat and his life for a brother.
Cathy's brother Steve LaPlante read the article and called his sister. She called her daughter. In no time at all Karen was on the phone to me. The upshot was: Cathy and Karen and Tom's sister Ibby Hall all came to a reunion of the Ia Drang band of brothers on Veterans Day weekend, 1990.
The first night I stepped to the door of the reunion hospitality suite and saw someone who had to be Karen, now married and the mother of two little girls. She was tall and breathtakingly beautiful. There was such anguish in her eyes that I couldn't face her. I turned and walked out.
The next evening was the Ia Drang dinner, and someone said, "You two have got to meet." Suddenly we were face to face. Karen asked: "Why didn't you write this story 25 years ago?" We both burst into tears. When I had collected myself, I responded to a question I had asked myself a thousand times. "The truth is that 25 years ago I did not have the skills to write that story, and if I had no one would have published it."
The captain's daughter -- who inherited her dad's eyes and his penchant for mischief -- and the reporter who had marched with him, and unlike him had survived the battle, became good friends.
Seven and a half years ago, my wife died of cancer. Karen became increasingly important in my life. Five years ago this week, on October 24, 1998, Karen and I were married in the backyard of General Sam Wilson's home on the campus of Hampden-Sydney College in southern Virginia, under the spreading arms of an ancient Osage orange tree. Tom Metsker's grandson, Lex, then 7, gave his mother away. His granddaughters, Abigail, then 9, and Alison, then 11, were their mother's attendants.
Last fall, we established the Thomas C. Metsker Leadership Education Endowment Fund at The Citadel. This spring the cadets at The Citadel named their new football mascot, a bulldog puppy, "General Tom Metsker."
Next month, the Ia Drang band of brothers -- Karen's honorary uncles and the kids' honorary granddads -- will come to town as they always do this time of year. The families of others who died in those terrible November days 38 years ago will join us in this annual voyage of remembrance and healing.
Karen and the kids and I will go over to Arlington National Cemetery where Tom Metsker rests, just downslope from the Tomb of the Unknowns, and we will visit with him. So much was taken from us, and yet so much was given.