Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FROM THE PUBLISHER >>Tough vet able to cry and smile

When you saw Bill Greer, he usually smiled like all his brothers. They said he never met a stranger, and he loved to pull pranks and scare people, but then he’d laugh some more and just be happy and everybody would forgive him.

Greer, who passed away last week, was a small-town cutup — he was raised in Poplar Bluff, Mo. — and he was a real character, before TV made everyone act and look the same — but his brothers and sisters were taught to be happy even when life was hard.

Life was tough, since their father drilled water wells for a living, and there was no work in the winter, but the family survived and did all right for themselves.

Bill Greer was the longtime meat manager for Knight’s Super Foods, and he never complained if we were late with his ads or if there was a mistake. He’d just say, “Don’t worry about it. It’s all right.”

Bill would smile and ask how you were doing, but he never let on that he was a Vietnam veteran who’d seen too many of his friends die, blown up in the jungles or swallowed up in the rice paddies back in 1965 and 1966, when he was in his early 20s and the war was escalating and hundreds of Americans were dying every week.

Bill Greer died last Thursday at the age of 64 from a massive aneurysm and cardiac arrest.

At the graveside service at Meadowbrook Memorial Gardens, shots rang out as a military honor guard saluted him for his service to his country and on a CD Johnny Cash sang “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Amazing Grace.”

Johnny Cash was his favorite singer because Johnny also came from a poor family that worked the ground and he never forgot his roots, and he, too, had his personal demons. But Bill would only share the horrors of his past with his Jane and his family and a few friends.

After his funeral, his younger brothers Walt and Eugene were smiling just like Bill used to smile. If you knew Bill but hadn’t met Walt and Eugene before, you could tell right away they were brothers not only because they look alike but also from the big smiles on their faces.

His brother Walt said Bill was always having the time of his life, hiding behind curtains and jumping out and startling people, or working late at night at Knight’s Super Foods, where he was the meat supervisor for more than 30 years.

Bill loved his job and became a workaholic to keep his mind off his past.

“He’d open his wallet to anybody,” Walt said after the funeral. “He didn’t have an enemy in the world. He never met a stranger.”

He did scare the daylights out of Walt’s wife, the bakery supervisor who was trying to find the light switch at 3 a.m. when the store was closed and supposedly empty, and suddenly a man’s hand reached out, and she screamed. It was Bill, and she told him not to scare her like that anymore.

He liked to play games because when he was a young man, life was hell and he didn’t know if he’d live to see his 24th birthday.

“He saw hand-to-hand combat in Vietnam,” Walt said.

Bill kept his group going from one battle to the next with hardly a break. “The men would start getting tired, and he’d yell to keep them alert at all times. The enemy was everywhere.”

He saw a lot of death and destruction in Vietnam, but when his brother Eugene was about to be sent over there, Bill said he’d pull an extra year’s duty if Eugene didn’t have to go to Vietnam. The Army wouldn’t hear of it, so Eugene fought in Vietnam right after his brother came back home.

Bill’s wife Jean first heard that story after the funeral. “He’d rarely talk about the war,” she recalled, “but when he did talk, he’d tell the same stories over and over.”

There were the nightmares for the longest time. He’d close his eyes, and he could hear his buddies screaming.

“He used to jump out of helicopters,” Jane said. “They were the first ones to get killed.”

One day, they were out on patrol and were surrounded. His group was nearly wiped out.

“They’d run out of ammunition and were outnumbered 3-1,” his widow said.

The enemy fled when helicopters arrived to rescue Bill and his group.

“Only five in his group survived,” Jane said. “He carried so many bodies, he broke down and cried.”

He really tried to put the war behind him and succeeded most of the time, but then there’d be something in the news, and Bill would get depressed.

“During Desert Storm, his personality would change,” his wife explained. “His personality would change after he’d go to bed.”
His wife said Bill had real leadership qualities, and the Army wanted to make him an officer, but he was married and wanted to work and raise a family.

Bill helped build the Knight’s chain and had many friends and raised a big family who loved him. At least 100 people showed up for his funeral and heard Johnny Cash sing:

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

The sun was setting, and an honor guard took the flag from Bill’s casket and folded it and gave it to Jane. The vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars gave her three shells.

She was moved by the gesture, and it seemed as if the flag and the shells were for all the men who didn’t make it back from Vietnam, or if they did survive, they never left the war behind.