By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
BLUE SPRINGS — It’s not usual for a voice from the choir to interrupt Mass.
But on this Veterans Day, as the students of St. John LaLande Parish gathered in church to honor military veterans, Jim Stacer couldn’t resist adding one more petition.
“His name is Edward Arnold Vercouteren,” said Stacer, a booming bass voice who helped fill the church with patriotic hymns.
“He gave his life to bandage me. In doing so, he exposed himself,” Stacer said. “I would like to pray for him.”
On June 7, 1967 – a date he will never forget – Jim Stacer was an 18-year-old and fresh out of boot camp, assigned halfway around the world to join Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment to Quang Tri Province in South Vietnam and a base that wouldn’t become famous for another eight months — Khe Sanh.
On patrol that day, his squadron was ambushed. Of the 55 men, 18 were killed, including Cpl. Edward Arnold Vercouteren. Another 28 were wounded, including Pvt. James Stacer.
Vercouteren was 27, and a 10-year veteran of the Corps. When the shooting started and the Marines scattered for position to fight back, Stacer stuck with the oldest, wisest, most veteran Marine he saw.
A hand grenade exploded, sending shrapnel into Stacer’s body.
“I thought I was dying,” Stacer told The Catholic Key after the Veterans Day Mass.
“But he immediately got over to me and started bandaging me to stop the bleeding. He didn’t think anything of it. He just did it. It’s what Marines do,” he said.
As Cpl. Vercouteren left his cover to tend to the wounded private, a Viet Cong bullet found his neck.
“He didn’t die right away,” Stacer said. “He was right next to me, motioning with his two fingers, so that’s what I did. I reached into his mouth to clear the blood clots. And then he passed away,” Stacer said.
Stacer and Vercouteren, already dead, were the first to be evacuated when the helicopters came for the wounded and the dead. It is the Marine way. No man is ever left behind.
Stacer would spend several weeks in a military hospital, where he was fixed up so well that he was determined fit to return to complete his 13-month tour of duty.
He was at Khe Sanh that heralded the bloody Tet offensive, where for 77 days beginning on Jan. 21, 1968, some 4,000 Marines and South Vietnamese regulars held off a Viet Cong force of some 30,000.
During that siege, hundreds of Marines gave their lives, and thousands were injured — including, again, Pvt. James Stacer, and again by shrapnel from a hand grenade.
“I still have nightmares about grenades, where one is thrown and I’m diving on it to protect someone I love,” he said.
But in real life, the hero he won’t forget is Cpl. Edward Arnold Vercouteren, whose name is chiseled on Panel 21E, Row 71 of “The Wall,” the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., not far from the Lincoln Memorial.
“He should have had a Bronze Star, a Silver Star, or even the Medal of Honor,” Stacer said. “But there were no other witnesses but me.”
Stacer was left to make sense of it, at 18 years old.
“I know God saved me for a reason, and took his life to save mine,” he said.
“When I think about everything that has happened, my children and my grandchildren, none of that would have taken place,” Stacer said. “I just hope I have touched enough lives.”
Father Ron Elliott, pastor of St. John LaLande Parish and a U.S. Army veteran himself, would yield the pulpit to another man who had touched many lives, both in military uniform and in clerical uniform.
Father Ken Criqui, who retired as a “full bird” colonel after more than 25 years of service as a chaplain in the Missouri Air National Guard, told the children of St. John LaLande School of the critical need for military chaplains, particularly Catholic priests.
“Maybe one or two of you may become a chaplain,” Father Criqui said. “Maybe more of you will go into the military as a career.”
It is a noble profession, he told the children, and one whose members and their sacrifices should be remembered on more days than one.
“Today is Nov. 11,” he said. “We especially honor those veterans who died to protect our country from our enemies,” Father Criqui said.
“We need men and women in our military.”