Marine repays debt 30 years after death of his platoon sergeant in Vietnam

Capt. Tom Smith of Sarasota, Fla. served with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam. He is pictured with an enemy AK-47 assault rifle while holding a skull. This picture was taken at Quang Tri, Vietnam, at the division’s rear area. Photo provided

Capt. Tom Smith United States Marine Corps wrote this account of his tour in Vietnam:

“On July 1, 1968, while serving as platoon commander of 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines, I received orders for a mission. It was a four-day, three-night patrol to establish various platoon patrol bases and then conduct numerous small unit patrols out of them.

“Shortly thereafter I convened a meeting with my squad leaders and my platoon sergeant, Sgt. Charles Kalka, to plan the mission. We were going to a part of the tactical area of responsibility that I was unfamiliar with due to my being ‘in country’ less than a month.

“Since we would be leaving just before dusk, my team was concerned about some critical navigation issues. We decided on the lead squad with our best point man. Then Sgt. Kalka suggested that he and I switch places, he would go with the lead squad and I would go with the third squad. Initially I rejected his suggestion, but eventually acquiesced when Kalka persisted and all the NCOs (non-commissioned officers) endorsed Kalka’s idea. It was not a big deal at that time. No one thought anything about it; just a Marine’s routine devotion to duty, doing what the thought was best for his platoon.

“Ten minutes after leaving our base, we were ambushed. Sgt. Kalka, in the exact position where I was supposed to be, was identified by the enemy as a leader because of his proximity to the radio, and was killed by small arms fire. As I rushed forward while we assaulted through the tree line, I came upon Kalka. He was lying on his back with multiple entry wounds.

“The image is seared in my memory. I can still see it today. When you’re alive because of the dedication, devotion and selflessness of another, it’s something that never leaves you. I am alive and my family exists because of Sgt. Charles Kalka, USMC. I have thought about that quite frequently since my return from combat.

Tom Smith of Sarasota looks at his discharge papers from the Marine Corps 40 years later. He served one tour of duty in Vietnam during the war. Sun photo by Don Moore

“Some 30 years later I started a quest to try to contact Kalka’s family. I felt a strong need to tell a family member that I was alive as a result of his dedication, devotion and selflessness. At the same time, I was reluctant to open old wounds and cause his family any emotional pain. It was a long and unsuccessful search involving many phone calls, false leads and fruitless Internet searches. Often I thought of giving up, wondering if I was being selfish because I had nothing to offer his family but painful memories.

“Often quitting for periods of time, I always seemed to return to the search. Then one night as I called yet another number, a young lady answered and I recited my usual introduction, ‘I’m looking for the family of Sgt. Charles Kalka, a Marine who I served with in Vietnam.’

“”Wait a minute,’ she said. “She muffled the phone, but I heard her call out ‘Mom!’

“An older woman got on the phone and I recited my intro.

“‘That was my brother, Charles.’

“With my heart in my throat, I said, ‘I’m alive because of your brother Charles.’ I then proceeded to tell her that Charles was a courageous, brave, dedicated and devoted Marine.

“‘Did he suffer?’ she asked.

“‘Absolutely not. He died instantly,’ I told her. ‘I was by his side within 10 seconds. He did not suffer.’

“There was silence on the other end of the phone line for about five seconds followed by an audible sigh.

“‘Thank God. I’ve always wondered all these years.’

“It had never occurred to me I could bring any solace or comfort to his family. For that I will be eternally grateful. I am as glad that I persisted in my search and that I made that phone call as I am of anything in my life.

“Sgt. Kalka’s name is on panel 54 West, Row 30 at the Vietnam Wall. Whenever I go to Washington, D.C., I visit him to update him on my family and to say ‘Thanks’ once again.”

Capt. Tom A. Smith , USMC (Ret.), Sarasota, Fla.

Tom Smith in Vietnam:

* His tour: June 1968-July 1969

* Platoon commander, K-Company, 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division

* Pit commander and executive officer, A-Company, 3rd AT (ONTOS) Bn, 3rd Division

* Executive officer, E-Company 2nd Bn, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division

* Acting company commander, E-Company, 2nd Bn, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.

* Commendations:

* Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V” for Valor

* Marine Corps Combat Association Ribbon

* Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry

He grew up in Staten Island, N.Y., moved to Sarasota in 1995 and works in a pharmaceutical sales.

This story first appeared in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Feb. 9, 2009 and is republished with permission.

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