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Honoring Sgt. Wink
PATRICK BURNS Review Staff
, Staff Writer
Therapists often advise combat vets not to discuss battlefield horrors that soldiers typically try to erase from their memory banks.
That opinion had long conflicted John Brady, whose tank commander, Brownstown native and Lititz resident Sgt. Melvin Wink was killed before his eyes 43 years ago along the Vietnam-Cambodia border.
Brady only recently opened up about the last day he and Wink occupied an armored personnel carrier traveling with their brothers in the U.S. Army 3rd Squadron of the 4th Armored Cavalry known as the "Raiders."
"Some men get more upset talking about it," Brady said Monday. "I’m the opposite, I say speak more, tell more people – because people have to know – they have to credit Melvin for his bravery."
Brady, from Syracuse, N.Y., was in the area to honor Wink during a Veteran’s Day tribute at Conestoga Valley High School.
CV had rededicated a plaque – originally bestowed 20 years ago to Wink – next to a new one honoring 2008 CV graduate Brandon M. Styer, who was killed in action in 2009 in Afghanistan.
Wink was a 1967 CV grad who was only a few weeks short of exiting combat and the Army to begin a life with his new bride Chris whom he married in Hawaii on R&R only a few weeks before shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade killed him on June 1, 1970.
"His bravery saved my life," Brady said. "But that left me with incredible guilt; he had died and I survived."
Brady said he had never talked about Wink’s death or his own six-month struggles immediately after while he remained "in country." But Brady’s long healing process peaked when he met with the Wink family Roland Memorial Park in Akron in 2011.
Like so many Vietnam vets, he suffered from PTSD and endured by abusing drugs and alcohol.
"I would be in a rage, very frustrated, I just had a real tough time and I took the drugs and alcohol when I returned from Vietnam," Brady said. "
Brady’s decision to discuss the details of Wink’s death provided closure for him and for Wink’s three brothers, two sisters and his widow. The family had tried unsuccessfully for four decades to reach out to soldiers who were with him when he died in Cambodia.
"I wrote letters to everyone I could find, but got no responses," said Arlene Sensenig, Wink’s sister. "But thanks to Internet and a Vietnam website we were able to connect to John, whom our family now calls "Uncle John."
Sensenig said Brady provided information the Wink family couldn’t get from the government and learned how Melvin had volunteered to be tank commander.
"He took the position because he had a natural ability to lead," Brady said.
"He had the respect of everyone around him and it was natural for him to take charge; he was a great man," Brady said.
Wink had only a few weeks left of combat service since – as was the military’s custom – he was scheduled to be placed out of "harms way" into a base camp for the final month of duty, Brady said.
But that never happened.
Wink had led a group of Sherman Tanks and tank-like APCs patrolling for weapon caches and stockpiles in a rubber tree plantation near the Cambodian border. He noticed enemy movement that Brady would later learn were fighters emerging from a tunnel system.
"(Wink) tapped me on the soldier to move to the rear of the APC so he could swing a 50-caliber gun to engage," Brady said. "The second I got up an RPG round hit the tank right where I had been sitting. He was killed instantly."
Brady said he "lost my sense of guilt" carried for 40-plus years by explaining the events to the family. "The important thing is to talk about it, to let it out."
The family vows to meet annually with him since the day they accompanied him on a deeply emotional first visit to Melvin’s grave where they held hands in a circle.
"We all felt a sudden breeze on a warm sunny day," Brady said. "It just gave me the sense that Melvin was there."
More WINK, page A15