“We don’t talk much about what we saw in Vietnam because it was so terrible. Then, when we returned to the United States, Americans didn’t want us back either. They threw urine and feces on us, called us baby killers. We might as well have died in Vietnam than come back to our own country, hated.” ~ Sgt. Ralph Shorter, USMC and US Army Reserves (Ret.)
On Monday, May 31, 2021, we will have a barbecue, make potato salad, gather at the cemetery for our annual observance of Memorial Day, decorate graves, visit with people we haven’t seen in many years, watch the military memorial service, and flinch when the VFW rifles volley blanks that shock our senses for just a moment. For those who have stepped forward, and taken the oath to defend the United States, and put their lives into service, Memorial Day comes with a deep and painful reminder of friends who never returned home, service members who took their lives in the hopelessness of post-traumatic stress and debilitating injuries, and those who lost their battle to military-related injuries and illnesses years later. Memorial Day remembers those lives lost in serving, protecting, and defending the United States and her citizens. This month’s “Where Are They Now?” is proud to feature Ralph Shorter’s lifetime and military experiences and the losses that came from those experiences he lived from beyond the Hamilton County line.
Born October 29, 1952, to Harry and Betty (Pope) Shorter, Ralph Shorter was one of the five children, Harry Jr., Randall, Harold, and Christie. Harry Shorter, Sr., was employed at the Syracuse Sale Barn, so the family lived above the sale barn, but later moved to a house behind the sale barn. Ralph attended Kindergarten and first grade at Syracuse Grade School between 1958 and 1960. The family moved to Holly, Colorado, then Stott City, Missouri, during his second-grade year. Their sister, Christie, was adopted by Johnny and Lois Mayhill of Kendall when she was three-years-old. Harry and Betty divorced in his 3rd grade year, so Harry Sr. moved Harry Jr., Randall, Harold, and Ralph back to Syracuse in 1962, where Ralph attended the third through the fifth grade in 1965. While back in Syracuse, Ralph’s father re-married to Nancy (Craig) Shorter in August, 1964.
Ralph remembered his teachers, Mrs. Drew in Kindergarten, Mrs. Liggett, and Mrs. Hill in his fourth-grade year, who had a daughter Sarah Hill that his brother befriended. Mr. Derbyshire was an entertaining science teacher. Ralph was able to have a few friends to play with and remembered Richie Lynam and Johnnie Helton as friends during those years in Syracuse. He went to his first Easter egg hunt with his really good friend, Skeeter Esquivel, and thought that was something special. He had never had such an adventure like that before. He remembered John Swisher as a friend from his time in Syracuse, as well. When Ralph was a child in Syracuse, The Perkins Zoo was open at the location where Dollar General stands today. The Northrup Theater was on Main Street, as was the IGA and another grocery store on the corner.
The family moved to Big Bow, Kansas, in Stanton County for his 6th grade year, but moved again to Grove, Oklahoma, where he completed his seventh through ninth grade years. At the age of 15, Ralph ran away from home. Looking back, he acknowledged, “That was not the smartest thing I had ever done.” Although this was the end of the 1960’s, Ralph didn’t run away to join a hippie commune and seek peace, love, and rock and roll. There is often a reason why teens run away from home and, reluctantly, Ralph shared that he fled the abuse in his home. Stressors in the home, known only to Harry and Nancy, bubbled over into abusive remarks and physical abuse of Ralph, who was restricted from any outside activities. He escaped this captivity and fled to Anderson, Missouri, where he attended the tenth grade.
Ralph dropped out of school after the tenth grade and found employment catching chickens for slaughter during the night shift. As one might imagine, Ralph confirmed, “That was a horrible job.” One night, as the passenger in the 18-wheeler chicken truck, there was an accident that propelled his body through the windshield and into the path of the out-of-control vehicle. The truck ran over Ralph, leaving tire tracks across his back and abrasions to his arms and legs, but he got up and walked away from the accident, now determined to find a greater calling. A better job wouldn’t hurt anything either. The driver of the truck was not ejected or run over, but was unconscious and incapacitated with broken bones and rushed to the local hospital for immediate surgical intervention.
In August, 1972, Ralph enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and attended basic training at Parris Island, in Port Royal, North Carolina, then stationed at the Naval base in Millington, Tennessee, the USMC Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina, and Camp Lejeune near Jacksonville, North Carolina.
Shortly after Ralph was out of basic training, he returned to where he had captured chickens at night. As he walked into the office, the truck driver who had been driving the night of the accident was in the office. He took one look at Ralph and turned deathly white, saying, “You’re dead.” It took some convincing, but the truck driver had never known what happened to Ralph because he was taken directly to the hospital for surgery. No one had ever told him that Ralph was not only run over, but got up and walked away from the accident.
In 1975, Ralph married Sally and they welcomed their son, Jeremy, in 1976. Their family was completed when their daughter Sarah was born.
As a Marine, Ralph was deployed to Operation Babylift, April 3-26, 1975, to evacuate the children out of South Vietnam, predominantly the children who were born to Vietnamese women impregnated by American men. “We didn’t know what to do. There was so much going on.” At the airports, these children, some maimed, some blind, yet others permanently bent because their backs had grown that way, would grab the Marines’ hands and hold on for dear life as they rode the escalator. These children were beaten by the North Vietnamese only because they were half American; however, they found great joy in riding the escalators. They had never seen moving stairs before. In the midst of the chaos of the evacuation, time after time, Marines, firmly held by abused children, were riding up and down on the airport escalators. The soldiers understood the gravity and urgency of the situation, but the kids only knew they were safe with the Marines and, in that moment, enjoyed the simple joy of safety and security, but were able to have the kind of fun that kids should have, maybe for the first time in their very little lives. Eventually, they boarded the planes. “A plane load of children . . . you just had to see it to believe it.” It isn’t a coincidence or a mistake that the Marine who fled from the abuse in his own home was now on assignment, frantically trying to save as many children from unspeakable and senseless abuses of children a world away, holding their hands, making them feel safe, listening to their laughter on the escalators as they rode up and down repeatedly, and carrying their broken and scarred bodies out of their homeland that hated them, just before the fall of Saigon. You see, friends, fixing what is wrong in someone else’s world that you couldn’t fix in yours. . that’s what a hero does.
As Vietnam strongholds were collapsing to enemy take-over, the Vietnamese people were frantic to flee to safety, looking to the United States military as their last hope. Those very soldiers, villainized by public figures like actress Jane Fonda, were loading people onto C-141 and C-135 planes, which were being sent to the United States. The Vietnamese people tried to load their entire lives into large, heavy suitcases they dragged, slowing their escape, but the Marines were ordered not to touch their luggage. He understood why when one of the suitcases burst open, spilling gold ingots that were so important to the culture and the people, across the busy floor. Sadly, many people and personal belongings were left behind, as there were just too many people to put into a very limited space. Ralph remembered, “I would not want to see that again.”
There were still United States resources left in place that they couldn’t get loaded or moved as the North Vietnamese advanced into South Vietnam. Vehicles, buildings, and other resources that they didn’t want to leave to advance the North Vietnamese mission. “What we couldn’t get out, we bombed on the bases, but we weren’t able to destroy everything.”
When Ralph returned to the United States after deployment and was stationed in Kailua, Hawaii, he confronted another deficiency in his life, the lack of a high school diploma. The United States Marine took the classes and passed the tests to acquire his GED in Honolulu, Hawaii, before being transferred to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was an aircraft mechanic for gas and diesel-engine planes. He was also able to be the ground pilot, of sorts, who towed them in and out of the hangar where they were being repaired.
In 1981, Sergeant Ralph Shorter completed his military service, or so he thought, and moved to Missouri where he, Jeremy, and Sarah would start their lives as civilians. Ralph Shorter was the Chief of Police in Southwest City, Missouri, for three years, and then a Police Officer for a year and a half at the Police Department in Gravette, Arkansas. Ralph found a place to work and rest from a life of public service when he started working for Walmart, so he stayed on for twenty-four years. Military service, however, wasn’t completely out of his system, In 2002, a little over twenty years from his discharge, and forty years from his first enlistment in the United States Marines, Ralph joined the Army National Guard, where he would, again, serve at the rank of Sergeant.
With the Army National Guard, Ralph was deployed to Germany, Kosovo, and, between August 2007 through October, 2008, to New Mexico where they would assist the United States Border Patrol with the undocumented aliens gaining unauthorized access to the United States.
One of Sergeant Shorter’s last deployments was to help with flood watch in the 2010 flooding of Eastern Arkansas, stopping people from driving on flooded roadways where the waters were hiding treacherous craters where the roadway had washed away. The Army National Guard patrolled the flooded roads and streets in Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Trucks (HEMTT), where the flood waters came to the bottom to the eight-wheeled, ten-ton trucks; however, if the waters were any higher, they would have to back out.
Years of service took its toll on Ralph mentally and physically. While stationed at Camp Lejeune, he was poisoned by an unknown military chemical and has been since diagnosed with Type II diabetes, as well as he and his peers coping with Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) before it had a diagnosis and aggressive treatment. As an aircraft mechanic, he worked with two pilots who crashed and died in the fiery wreckage. He admitted, “You try to hide and deal with it.” Ralph still has dreams that cause him to live through the trauma over and over. During a drill in 2009, a soldier he knew well, shot himself in front of his wife and his son. “That one took a load of us down too.” Two weeks ago, another retiree committed suicide, as well. Ralph acknowledged, “They were trying to get help and get someone to listen, but that just had no hope.
In 2010, Ralph was able to make one more, long-overdue course correction in his life. Before his step-mother, Nancy, died, she and Ralph had a conversation in which she acknowledged that she had not treated him very well as a child. The sixty-nine-year-old woman looked back from her death bed at the twenty-three-year-old girl who married into an instant family with four boys and was, likely, in over her head. Her remorseful recognition of this travesty, how she handled their childhood was the key to allow the child in Ralph the validation he needed for running away from home, but his understanding and compassion of an adult who had seen tragedy all over the world knew to offer the forgiveness she needed to leave this world with some peace. Nancy Shorter died on December 31, 2010.
It’s funny how the little gestures from a long time ago seem to come back and pay dividends in someone’s life. When asked how he coped, Ralph didn’t hesitate to attribute his coping and survival to one source, “the Word of God.” As a child, a lady known only to him as “Mrs. Fox,” picked up Ralph and his brothers and took them to church in Kendall at the Assembly of God, east of Main Street, where he became familiar with the Bible. So, when he started dating Sally, part of the condition of dating her was church attendance on a regular basis, which is where he was saved. Out of the military and starting a career in law enforcement, he just simply lost hope, but one book saved his life, Charles Capps’ book, The Tongue: A Creative Force, then later a second book: Keith Moore’s Do Yourself No Harm. He sends copies of these books to people he recognizes in the grasp of hopelessness. Daily, he utilizes Ephesians 1:16-23 and 3:14-21 as the personal prayers they were intended to be, repeated straight from the bible, but ultimately strives to be as James wrote, “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only.”
Some Veterans Administration (VA) locations provide very good service to military personnel; however, some have a waiting list, like the one in Branson near his retirement home.
Ralph has retired from the military with full benefits, as well as his civilian employment with Walmart. He and Sally have celebrated 46 years of marriage and relocated to a 3,800 square foot home in the Ozarks at Hollister, Missouri, just down the road from Branson. This home is a dream-come-true with five bedrooms and three bathrooms. He chuckled, “I’ve never had a home this big!” He entertains himself, and perhaps Sally, with puns, now commonly referred to as “Dad jokes,” of which he shared a few as he laughed and laughed:
“Did you hear about the .45 that married the .38? They had a darling bb.” (ba dum bum)
“Have you heard about the employee that fell into the bubblegum vat? His boss chewed him out.” (It’s okay to groan here.)
Of his brothers, Harry Jr. has retired from the U.S. Army and is now in Lawton, Oklahoma. Randall also retired from the Army, but passed away in November, 2018. Harold farms in Grove, Oklahoma. He is proud to report that his children are doing well also. Jeremy and his wife live in Phoenix, Arizona, and Sarah is in the U.S. Army National Guard, stationed at Fort Bliss, and just like her dad, is now a Sergeant too.
This year, please join us in remembering the many, including Ralph’s friends and servicemen, who have given everything they had to serve their country, by honoring them this Memorial Day. Fly your flag, go to the service at the cemetery, and listen to each and every name read aloud. They were someone’s brother, sister, son, daughter, father, mother, and friend. Should you feel compelled to live as Ralph strives each day, to be more than a hearer, but a doer, consider a charitable donation to the local VFW, Wounded Warriors, or a War Horse organization that strives to mitigate those numbers of post-combat or post-service losses by shining that light of hope back into the very best lives America has had serving, rescuing, and protecting at home and abroad. With great respect and unspeakable gratitude, we offer the surviving friends and family, including you, Sgt. Ralph Shorter, a humble and inadequate, “Thank you.” We see you, we know you, we are proud of you, and we love you.
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