RED WING, Mn. - With every paddle stroke, Jim Crigler moves further away from where he’s been and a little closer to where he is headed.
Crigler is canoeing 2,300 miles down the Mississippi River to honor Gold Star families. But his journey began 45 years ago in Vietnam.
“I was flying with the 129th assault helicopter company with my roommate, First Lieutenant Thomas Shaw, and believe me, all hell broke loose in early April,” Crigler said.
The year was 1972 and the U.S. was withdrawing military forces from Vietnam. Crigler and Shaw were flying resupply missions in Huey helicopters to the remaining U.S. troops as the North Vietnamese army increased their assaults.
“You know when you get the feeling your number is up. You know when the bullets are missing you and they are so close and death is so close,” Crigler said. “Tom and I made a pact between us that if one of us were killed in combat, the other would do their best to be the burial escort officer and comfort the family when they escorted the body back.”
The day after making that pact, Tom died when his helicopter was shot down.
“Forty-five years ago, you remember. I remember being upstairs doing my homework with my brother, Kevin, and we heard two car doors slam,” said Dave Shaw, Tom’s brother. “We looked and walking up our walkway was a priest and a military officer, and we looked at each other, and we knew.”
Crigler honored his promise to Tom by comforting the family. He sat and talked with the family and shared stories about Tom. But what he didn’t do, because as a burial escort officer he was not allowed to, was mourn the loss of his friend.
“That was really my mission of honor, but it was also the toughest mission I had in the war,” Crigler said.
After the funeral, Crigler returned to Vietnam.
“We never saw Jim again and never heard from him again, until 40 years later,” Shaw said.
When the war ended, Crigler came home to Winona, Minnesota. But like many combat veterans, the war never really left him.
“You know, the horrors of war, they never leave you. They are always with you,” Crigler said.
Four decades after the Vietnam War ended, Crigler reconnected with Tom Shaw’s family. He also decided to do something for all of the other families who lost servicemen and women to war.
To draw attention to the sacrifice made by Gold Star families, he is canoeing from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota to New Orleans. Along the way, when he meets Gold Star families, he is presenting them with a Gold Star as a way of saying thank you.
“That’s really why I’m going down the river. I want to start a movement to fix a problem. This is simply finding a Gold Star family from Vietnam, getting a stamp and an envelope, a piece of paper and writing a thank-you note. Thank them for that great sacrifice and service that their family has been through,” Crigler said.
Crigler is also the author of a book, “Mission of Honor.” The book chronicles his experiences in Vietnam.
The proceeds from the book and other donations will be going to a non-profit, American Huey 369. That organization supports veterans and preserves the history of Vietnam War helicopter pilots.
To purchase his book, or make a donation, go to Jim Crigler’s website at: https://www.missionofhonor.org/
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