The Fourth of July marks the independence of the United States of America and gives all Americans pause to remember those who have sacrificed their lives, their freedom and witnessed the horrors of war firsthand.
For one Vietnam veteran — former Green Beret Michael Duane Friedinger, 73, of Pekin — the memories are vivid. He and his buddies parachuted from planes into enemy territory under the cover of darkness not knowing what might await them at the landing zone. Many did not return home from the war-torn country alive. Many died near him in battle. Some have never been seen again.
Friedinger’s Army career was cut short by a bullet that he still carries in his body. He is a disabled veteran.
“I spent almost three years over there — ’67, ’68 and ’69,” said Friedinger. “One hundred sixty-eight of us went over and only 27 of us came back.
“I was with the 101st Airborne — jumping out of those planes. I was all over. Five minutes before we jumped, they told us what our mission was — behind enemy lines.”
Friedinger recently built a memorial to all who have fought and served in the military. It is in the hallway outside his apartment door so that others can see it. The backdrop for the memorial is “The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial” flag bearing the emblems of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the Coast Guard.
The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is in Washington, D.C. It honors veterans of the armed forces who were permanently disabled during their service to the nation. Congress adopted legislation establishing the memorial on Oct. 23, 2000, according to the National Parks Service website.
Friedinger said he stumbled across figurines at Walmart prior to Memorial Day — one of a soldier carrying a wounded soldier, one of a cross with boots and a helmet, and the third with a kneeling soldier praying at a cross marking the grave of another soldier. That gave him the idea for a memorial. Blank dog tags are draped around the necks of the soldiers and are hanging on the flag. They represent his fallen friends and some who remain missing.
At age 16 or 17, Friedinger joined the Army. He grew up in Pekin and got into trouble with the law when he stole a motorcycle.
“I volunteered,” said Friedinger. “I was on my own since I was 7 years old — a bad kid I guess.
“I joined a motorcycle gang and got in some trouble. The judge said, ‘I’m going to let you go this time, but if I was you and you’re going to fight, why don’t you join the service and fight for our country?’
“So I took her up on it, and that’s where I went.”
Friedinger has memorabilia from the war — his Green Beret ring and Army ring, among other things. But he lost his Green Beret hat and uniform and many other items in a house fire in South Pekin.
Friedinger is on the waiting list for the Honor Flight Program. He has been waiting for his turn for several years. Friedinger said he will be buried with other heroes at Camp Butler National Cemetery in Springfield.
Had he not been injured, Friedinger would have made the Army a career. The freedom he fought for and his friends died for means a lot to him.
“It’s hard to really say how it feels, but you know I lost a lot of friends,” said Friedinger. He said at one time he was already on a beach and other landing vehicles were bringing in more troops when a shell hit one of the transports squarely killing everyone on board, some friends of his. He said he saw a lot.
Despite the loses he experienced, Friedinger said he has no regrets in serving his nation.
“I loved it,” he said. “I loved jumping out of those planes, but not at night.”