The last time anyone saw the chaplain and his aide alive was on an airstrip in Khe Sanh. As they came under attack from the North Vietnamese army, they waved off a helicopter set to take them away and prepared instead to do their jobs.
For three long months during the Vietnam War, Chaplain Robert Brett, 33, and Private First Class Alexander Chin, a 23-year-old Marine, had forged a close partnership, scrambling through neck-high elephant grass and foxholes, dodging bullets and mortar shells as they ministered to frightened Marines.
This time, the lightning-fast rocket attack on the landing strip took their lives. And their story might have ended on that February day in 1968, in the hilltop trench where their mangled bodies were pulled from the shrapnel and debris and shipped home.
But yesterday they were reunited in Arlington National Cemetery, buried side by side under a bright sky on Chaplain's Hill.
At the behest of Brett's family and with the permission of Chin's relatives, Chin's body was removed from his family plot in the town of Princess Anne on Maryland's Eastern Shore and reinterred next to the man he vowed to serve.
About 60 relatives, fellow Vietnam veterans and military officials gathered for the ceremony. Navy Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, deputy chief of chaplains, told Chin's family and friends that their Marine was a “spiritual hero.”
Chin, family members say, was deeply religious and, after several months of combat, told his commanders in Vietnam that he could no longer kill the enemy. Instead of a court-martial, relatives said, Chin was given a job protecting and assisting Brett.
“He said, ‘I won't take a life, but I'll put my life on the line for another,' ” Black said, as six Marines held a flag above Chin's coffin. “Alexander laid down his life. It was love's crowning act.”
Family members embraced and sobbed openly as Marines fired a salute in Chin's honor.
“It's devastating,” said Levi Chin, 52, his younger brother. “It's like reliving his first funeral all over again. But it's an honor that he's here.”
Alexander Chin was in college, studying art, when he was drafted. Not long after he arrived in Vietnam, he and Brett became a fixture in the trenches, administering first aid, comforting Marines on the line and doing on-the-spot baptisms.
“They were always on the battlefield giving last rites and dragging the wounded to safer positions,” said Larry Ballard, who served with the men in the 26th Marine Regiment at Khe Sanh. “They were heroes. They placed themselves in mortal danger. Both of them.”
Jim Leslie, 58, a former Marine captain who served with Brett and Chin, attended yesterday's ceremony and remembered Brett for his courage and compassion.
“Chaplain Brett was always there, no matter if there was shooting or not,” Leslie said. The experience, he said, changed his life. “Some people call it foxhole religion, but for many of us, it continued forever. Brett was a brave one. No doubt.”
Brett volunteered to go to Vietnam because “he wanted to help people in dire situations,” said his brother, the Rev. Frank Brett of Norris, Tennessee, who also served as a chaplain in Vietnam. “My brother went places no one thought a chaplain would go. Most people would say, ‘What are you doing in this Khe Sanh mess?' ”
Robert Brett had been in Vietnam for six months when he and Chin were killed. Marines who witnessed the attack said the two were about to board a helicopter when they came under assault. Brett, they said, told the chopper to take off without them, allowing another man to go instead.
Several Marines were killed in the attack. At the time, family members said, Chin had already received three Purple Hearts and was scheduled to return home. He was engaged to be married.
“We had a banner stretched outside the door that said, ‘Welcome Home, Alex,' ” recalled one of Chin's sisters, Lottie Chin Benyard. “We had saved all his presents from Christmas, and we were going to celebrate all over again. Then we got the knock at the door telling us he'd been killed.”
Benyard said her family first learned of Chin's heroism when she was contacted earlier this year by Ballard and later by Brett's nephew, Edward Rouse. Three decades ago, Brett had been buried at his mother's request in the cemetery of the Penndel, Pennsylvania, seminary where he received his religious training. His mother died in 1980, and last fall, Rouse and his family fulfilled their longtime wish to have Brett's body moved to Arlington National Cemetery.
They felt strongly that Chin should be there, too. So Rouse hired a private detective, who tracked down Chin's relatives in the Baltimore area.
Chin “knew his duty was to protect the chaplain, and in honor of that commitment, I felt it was my duty to bring him to Arlington for honors and recognition,” Rouse said. “A lot of lies have come out about Vietnam veterans.
“This is a story of honor and sacrifice. It would have been very easy for them, in the face of all that evil, to give up their belief in God and their dedication to duty in the face of stress. But neither of them did. I'm proud of both of them.”
Chin, Alexander Scheleph,
Born 11 October 1944, Died 22 February 1968
US Marine Corps, PFC,
Res: Randallstown, MD,
Section 2-E, Grave 89-LH
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard