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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