The man in the military dress uniform blew a mournful “Shenandoah” on his harmonica, his audience in a ballroom at the CenturyLink Center still and silent.
Sammy L. Davis, a Medal of Honor recipient, learned to play the song as a young Army private in Vietnam for a sergeant in his unit who loved the river and the song. The sergeant told Davis it “renewed his heart.”
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Years later, he would start a tradition of playing the tune at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. — in front of the spot on Panel 50E, Row 13, where the sergeant's name, Johnston Dunlop, is etched on the wall.
“I hope it finds a place in your heart and renews your soul,” Davis told the crowd of 540, who had gathered to hear him speak at a $50-a-plate fundraiser for At Ease USA, an Omaha-based veterans support group.
They gave him a standing ovation.
At Ease USA started in 2007, when a group of volunteers organized to aid both veterans and families suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Since then, the group has opened counseling centers in Bellevue, Grand Island and North Platte.
“From a neighbor's basement, to the farthest corners of the state, there are veterans who need our help,” said Tim Burke, the group's president.
It also is funding research on PTSD treatment at Creighton University, in partnership with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska.
They try to reach the 60 percent of veterans with PTSD who don't seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs — sometimes out of fear, sometimes because they received other-than-honorable discharges. And special programs help parents, spouses and children of vets with PTSD, or who may be suffering symptoms themselves — and who may not qualify for VA assistance.
“Our small organization that started with an idea and some hardworking volunteers is serving those who have served us all,” Burke said.
That would include people just like Davis and his wife, Dixie, who said they still feel the effects of the trauma of Sammy Davis' service in Vietnam more than 45 years ago. He is still tormented by nightmares.
“I fight that battle almost every night,” he said. “It doesn't go away.”
Davis said he is thankful that awareness and treatment for PTSD have improved so much since he came home from war. But the alarming rate of suicides shows there's plenty of work still to do.
“Compared to Vietnam, it's amazing. But is it good enough? No,” he said. “We're just beginning to lift the lid off that boiling kettle.”
Davis enlisted in the Army in 1965, he said, “to make my daddy proud, and because I loved my grandpas” — all of whom were combat veterans, as were two brothers.
He said he signed up after seeing the Medal of Honor ceremony in December 1964 for Capt. Roger Donlon, the first recipient for action in Vietnam.
“He walked so proud and tall and straight. That week, I went down and volunteered,” Davis said. Years later, he and Donlon — who is now 79 and living in Leavenworth, Kan. — would become friends.
On Nov. 18, 1967, Davis was serving with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Regiment, 9th Infantry Division near Cai Lay, South Vietnam. His gun crew was set up on an island in the Mekong River. An officer helicoptered in that evening and told them there was “a 100 percent chance” they would be attacked that night.
He was right.
It started with a half-hour mortar barrage that began at 2 a.m., followed by an attack by some 1,500 enemy troops.
“I heard orders being shouted in English,” Davis recalled. “They said 'Go kill the GIs!' ”
Some of the Vietnamese reached the river bank only 25 meters away, directing point-blank fire at Davis and his crew. He kept firing his unit's howitzer despite multiple wounds from an enemy mortar round that exploded near him. Once he was knocked unconscious. The unit's soldiers were running low on ammunition, and the Vietnamese forces were still coming at them.
“I didn't think I was probably going to see daylight, but I wasn't gonna quit,” Davis said.
At one point, he heard a man on the other shore shouting, “Don't shoot, I'm a GI!”
Davis was so badly wounded he couldn't swim, but he found an air mattress. Slowly, painfully, and still under fire, he maneuvered the mattress across the river. He found three trapped soldiers, and in two harrowing trips, floated them to the relative safety of the island.
Refusing medical attention, Davis manned a gun until the Vietnamese broke and fled.
The 11 surviving members of his unit nominated him for the Medal of Honor. President Lyndon Johnson hung it around his neck at a ceremony exactly one year later.
That ceremony was immortalized in the Oscar-winning 1994 film “Forrest Gump.” The producers superimposed the head of actor Tom Hanks, who played the title character, on Davis' body.
Davis wasn't paid for his uncredited performance, but he said he didn't mind. In his talks to audiences in the years since, nearly everyone — even schoolchildren — remembers the Medal of Honor scene.
“Because most kids have seen “Forrest Gump,” that's our 'in,' ” he said.
Davis said he loves the movie because it reinforces the idea he likes to talk about in his speeches.
“One of the messages is that you don't lose until you quit trying,” he said.
That message hit home with Sgt. Randy Larson, 38, of Council Bluffs and his wife, Crystal.
Randy Larson is a soldier in the Iowa National Guard, and a veteran of two deployments to Afghanistan. He has received treatment through At Ease's peer-counseling center in Bellevue for the past 18 months.
“You need to keep talking to your brothers,” Randy Larson said.
Family counseling has helped, too.
“We've learned to keep going and not to give up,” Crystal Larson said. “We wanted to come here to give back to a program that's helped us.”
Information about At Ease USA
• Founded in 2007
• Supports active-duty military, veterans, their families and loved ones with confidential, cost-effective treatment for PTSD.
• Because friends and family can also experience PTSD-related symptoms, treatment focus is holistic and family-focused.
• Treats veterans regardless of discharge status.
• Uses only treatments that are supported by peer-reviewed research, while supporting research into new treatment options.
• Works in partnership with Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska, www.lfsneb.org