Veterans’ Reflections: ‘Do Your Duty and Be Proud’

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2010 — Michael Tripp is a cer­ti­fied pub­lic accoun­tant in East Prov­i­dence, R.I. He’s also one of the most famous faces from the Viet­nam War.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Michael Tripp, a Viet­nam vet­er­an, pos­es for a pho­to at the Viet­nam Vet­er­ans Memo­r­i­al in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Aug. 20, 2010. Tripp dis­cussed his time in ser­vice and the impor­tance of serv­ing in the mil­i­tary.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

From April 1965 to March 1969, Tripp served in the Marine Corps. On March 14, 1967, his heli­copter was shot down dur­ing a med­ical evac­u­a­tion mis­sion with Marine Medi­um Heli­copter Squadron 363, and he end­ed up spend­ing three days with Delta Com­pa­ny of the 1st Bat­tal­ion, 9th Marine Divi­sion. Tripp and the oth­er Marines found refuge in the wreck­age of a church. 

“While we were in the church, the UPI pho­tog­ra­ph­er Frank John­ston took a shot of me sit­ting on the altar, with the stat­ue of Christ behind me,” Tripp said. “It became rea­son­ably famous; it was in papers all over the place.” 

The pic­ture went out over the Unit­ed Press Inter­na­tion­al wire with a sim­ple cap­tion: “An exhaust­ed Marine finds refuge inside a church in An Hoa dur­ing a heavy North Viet­namese mor­tar attack.” It became one of the icon­ic images of the war. 

“Peo­ple would ask what we were doing in the church, and we’d always say ‘I was pray­ing; what did you think I was doing?’ ” Tripp said. 

After the pho­to­graph appeared in news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and books, includ­ing J. Robert Moskin’s “The U.S. Marine Corps Sto­ry,” a prob­lem arose: a man named Rob Sut­ter in Atlanta was con­vinced the Marine in Johnston’s pho­to was his broth­er, Richard, who died at Khe Sanh lat­er in 1967. 

It was­n’t until a reporter from the Wash­ing­ton Post dug into the sto­ry in 1998 and pro­filed Sut­ter that the dis­crep­an­cy was brought to light. After a three-part spe­cial report came out in the Post, Tripp’s pho­to was cir­cu­lat­ed again and end­ed up on a pro­mo­tion­al spot for a show on The Learn­ing Channel. 

“I called up The Learn­ing Chan­nel. … The woman said, ‘Are you the man who thinks he’s the Marine in the pho­to­graph?’ ” Tripp said. “So I said, ‘No, I am the man in the photograph.’ ” 

After some dig­ging through Navy records, Tripp was able to prove his iden­ti­ty; but that left him with the task of talk­ing to Sut­ter, who believed he had found a memo­r­i­al to his lost brother. 

Tripp said it was a hard vis­it, but the point was­n’t to take cred­it or dimin­ish anyone’s mem­o­ry. He said the pho­to­graph is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Marine Corps in Viet­nam, not of Tripp in Vietnam. 

“It was­n’t me, it was­n’t any­one else; it was all of us,” he said. 

Tripp found his way to the Marine Corps as an act of defi­ance. He was being pres­sured to go to col­lege on a wrestling schol­ar­ship, he said, but he said he decid­ed he was done being told what to do. Iron­i­cal­ly, he went into the service. 

“I was try­ing to find myself,” he said. 

Tripp said he had a deferred enlist­ment, giv­ing him a 30-day peri­od between sign­ing up and ship­ping out. In that time, he saw a spe­cial report Life mag­a­zine had done on heli­copter pilots. He imme­di­ate­ly went to the recruiter and told him he want­ed to be a heli­copter pilot, even if it meant a longer enlistment. 

The Marine Corps is the best fra­ter­ni­ty in the world, Tripp said, and ser­vice­mem­bers today should­n’t take the cama­raderie of ser­vice for grant­ed. He expressed the hope that ser­vice­mem­bers deployed today will come home from the war zone so they can con­tin­ue to enjoy the free­doms they’ve fought for and con­tin­ue to enjoy the friend­ships they’ve devel­oped in the service. 

“Do your duty, be proud, and keep your head down,” he said. “When you get hit in the butt it heals. When you get hit in the head, it doesn’t.” 

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.) 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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