Remembering my late Great Uncle Glenn Butler on Veterans Day
Glenn Butler, commentary writer Freddie R. Olin IV’s great uncle, is seen in the mid-1960s in Vietnam. (Photo provided by the Grant family)
For years, I have wanted to publish an appreciation of my late Great Uncle Glenn Butler, U.S. Army Vietnam veteran. He lived in Tanana, Alaska, where the Tanana and Yukon rivers meet, and some of my most fond childhood memories are of sitting in his little home, sometimes visiting, but most times just enjoying quiet company while a little handheld radio was switched on.
Glenn Butler was born 1936 in Tanana, and was drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War. He rarely shared his experiences serving in Vietnam, and if he did share his experiences with others, not many reconveyed those accounts. One wintry day, however, while I was in my mid-20s and living in Fairbanks, I struck up a random conversation with an elderly man.
The man, whose name I cannot remember to this day nor even where we were sitting and visiting, was friendly and outgoing, and he asked where I was from. When I told him my family history and ties to Tanana, the elderly man let me know he was a cook in the Army, and that for a time in Vietnam he was stationed at the same base as my Uncle Glenn.
The elderly man said he and Glenn found camaraderie in both being from Alaska. While I am not able to repeat verbatim what the elderly man shared of his experiences, he did say that whenever my uncle’s unit went out on patrol, often for days, the man would eagerly await their return. When he noticed their return, he would immediately search for the face of my Uncle Glenn in hopes that he returned safe and sound.
Against major lethal odds as many families learned throughout the Vietnam War era, my Uncle Glenn returned from each patrol and eventually his tour safe and sound – at least, from the enemy. But there is a twist in my his story and experience. He eventually contracted lifelong debilitating effects from contact with Agent Orange. The military-grade herbicide was designed to defoliate the jungle habitat prevalent in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.
Only all too late did servicemen learn that Agent Orange doubled as a carcinogen and nerve agent. The nerve agent aspect is what affected my Uncle Glenn as a result of his exposure to the chemical. Over the years after he was honorably discharged from the Army, his motor ability waned. He was able to move only so fast or enunciate his words so clearly. Tanana humor is special and affectionate, and many locals and family members took to calling Uncle Glenn “Speed,” a nickname used fully in place of his given name.
So by the time that I was a child around 10 years old and I was able to consciously search Uncle Speed out to visit with him, his condition had gotten to the point that he was not able to hold his head, neck or limbs in a steady manner, nor was he able to speak clearly. On top of those conditions, he was unable to walk on his own strength and used a wheelchair.
He never complained, never talked bad about anyone anywhere, and always had a knowing smile or grin for those around him. Those who knew him say he never lost a sparkle in his eyes. No one would have known the perils he faced serving in the Army in Vietnam, nor would one have known how his physical condition had deteriorated. He just enjoyed life as he was given it, and shared that joy with everyone.
On this Veterans Day, please remember the sacrifices my Uncle Speed and so many countless servicemen and women have made over the decades and wars and conflicts.
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