SCRANTON, Pennsylvania — After walking out of a small parking garage on Mulberry Street and turning the corner on Washington Avenue on the way to an official U.S. government Vietnam War Commemorative Event at the Lackawanna County Courthouse downtown here, one is immediately confronted by two nice men passing out pamphlets promoting their Baptist Church’s ceremonies.
A few more steps towards the courthouse and across the street is a small-town barber shop. A few more steps down is Whiskey Dick’s bar, where a group of local just-past-college-aged men are planning a three-inning Wiffle ball game outside that same courthouse where a local boy is being honored for his decades-ago sacrifice for America.
Lance Corporal Jimmy Reddington died at 19-years-old in Vietnam in March 1967, just a few months after he arrived there in December 1966. He was the life of Scranton, by all accounts, before he left to serve his country in one of the most gruesome wars in U.S. history. Like 58,000 other Americans, Reddington died in the jungle-covered country amid one of a series of wars and conflicts throughout the 20th century in which the United States was holding off the spread of communism on the world stage.
Domestic political tensions meant Vietnam veterans were shunned upon returning home, and the sacrifices of those killed in action—or prisoners of war and those missing in action—were not remembered and honored like the previous generations who fought in World War II or Korea.
But Scranton never forgot Jimmy Reddington or those with whom he served, as evidenced by the hundreds gathered here on a Memorial Day weekend Saturday for a local boy who died for their freedoms 51 years ago. Reddington, more than half a century later, finally received the medals he earned, the honor he is due, at a ceremony here in the heart of middle America–hours away from the bustle of Philadelphia or New York City–in the center of central Pennsylvania.
A young man born out of time, Reddington could have just as easily been one of these other college-aged kids polishing off a pint before taking the Wiffle ball field–were he lucky enough to be born a few decades later. But Reddington was of age during the height of the Cold War, when the U.S. was battling communism’s rise all around the planet–especially in Vietnam.
Reddington was just a Lance Corporal. He was not a general. He was not even an officer. He served at one of the lowest-level enlisted ranks. And when he died, his family here in Scranton was not far behind—so there was nobody to take care of his estate, his gravesite, or his military record jacket, including the awards he was due.
It turns out his old marine buddies would step up to do that for Reddington. It’s one of the most heartwarming stories in the country, one that has received years of attention from Scranton Times Columnist Chris Kelly and recently a shout-out from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board.
Republicans and Democrats united to commemorate Reddington with the medals he earned but was never awarded, including two purple hearts, here in the heart of Trump Country. This working class town, the hometown of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s father Hugh Rodham and of former Vice President Joe Biden, which shifted from its Democratic roots to vote for President Donald Trump in 2016’s tumultuous presidential election, rallied around the veteran community as hundreds of locals, including many veterans, gathered for a parade and honor ceremony downtown, on Saturday, just two days before Memorial Day.
Retired three-star Marine Corps Lt. General George Ronald Christmas told the gathered crowd:
Most of you in this audience knows someone you’re thinking about right now, who gave the all, who didn’t come home, who was your foxhole mate. It was that fellow soldier, sailor, airman or marine that went through hell with you. I’d ask on this Memorial Day that you remember them because you know what? They’re the best of America. Jimmy represents them. That’s why what we’ve done to bring Jimmy’s medals home to honor him at his grave tomorrow, that’s why that’s so important. But my message to you is there’s so much more than can be done. All of you know it. So just go home tonight—I’m going to—and I’ll think about those young men that fell as we fought in that city and I think about those that fought before whether it be in the Korean conflict or World War II.
This day, he said, is about Jimmy Reddington as much as it is about all those who served—especially those who didn’t come home—making the ultimate sacrifice for America’s freedom. The general, who retired in the mid-1990s, continued by noting that those present should think about the active duty military personnel as well. “The young men and women who wear the uniforms of our nation today are the very best,” Christmas said. “All they ask for is a little thanks once in a while. Give them what they need to do the job that they do, because that’s what they do every day selflessly just as these men and many of you here did in the Vietnam war or perhaps in other conflicts.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting things about this whole situation is how it all came together. The story first hit the local news, under columnist Kelly’s byline in the Scranton Times newspaper, years ago.
Back in 2010, around Memorial Day, Kelly wrote a column explaining the story of Jimmy Reddington:
Jimmy Reddington was bright. Good looking. Funny. Tough. Girls adored him. Boys admired him. A left-handed quarterback who thrived under pressure, Jimmy was a natural leader who never backed down from a challenge. Even as a Little League pitcher, he was a fierce competitor. The other boys nicknamed him ‘Pecker,’ because if you got a big hit off of him, you could count on him drilling you in the ear with the first pitch of your next at-bat.
The column explains how a man named Charlie Boylan, six years Reddington’s junior and also from Scanton, looked up to Jimmy as a kid.
“Everybody liked him,” Boylan is quoted as saying about Jimmy. “He just had a magnetism that’s hard to explain. He was somebody any 12-year-old boy would want to be like.”
Boylan later served as an M.P. in the Army in New Jersey after being drafted. He married and had two sons, worked as a substitute teacher and eventually for the state’s liquor control board. Then, in 2007, something happened that opened the story of Jimmy Reddington back up again for him. Kelly wrote:
Charlie was driving home from work in November 2007 when he heard on the radio that the ‘Wall that Heals’ was being displayed at Nay Aug Park. The wall is a scaled-down replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which lists the names of the 58,627 Americans who were either killed or reported missing in action in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Since 1997, the names of 82 veterans who died later from wounds suffered in the war have been added to the wall. Charlie went to Nay Aug and found a listing for Lance Cpl. James T. Reddington – Panel 17 East, Line 31. He stayed a while and noticed that no one seemed to stop at Jimmy’s name. He went back the next day. Same thing.
“It was like this kid just fell off the planet,” Boylan is quoted as saying. “I couldn’t believe there was nobody there for him. It just wasn’t right. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to find out more about Jimmy Reddington.’”
Here’s what happened next, per Kelly’s 2010 piece:
He started at Cathedral Cemetery, at the top of Oram Street. An attendant there told Charlie he was the only one who ever came to visit Jimmy’s grave, except for a pair of out-of-town veterans who were with him when he died.
Amazed, Charlie asked if she knew their names. She didn’t, but she did have a photograph of them with Jimmy in Vietnam. He asked to see it before heading to the grave. There, he found that Jimmy’s mother had died in 1975. A sister and a nephew were also buried there.
Reddington’s grave marker noted he was a member of Echo Company of the 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marines—which was made famous by the movie Full Metal Jacket. Kelly wrote.:
The next stop was the library, where Charlie found a microfiche copy of the Scranton Times article announcing Jimmy’s death. He learned that his friend’s father died when he was 3 years old, and that aside from the names on the markers he had already seen, the only other relative listed in the story was a grandfather who lived in New Jersey. He naturally assumed Jimmy had no family left.
The article quotes Boylan again as saying that he does not think Reddington’s grandfather could possibly still be alive, and therefore he was afraid that Jimmy was a forgotten soldier among the forgotten men and women of Scranton’s working class.
“’This guy is forgotten,’ I thought,” Boylan said. “’He has nobody.’ That’s when I decided I had to find the Marines who visited his grave.”
He reached out, via a website for the 2/5 Marines’ Echo Company, to a man called Joe Silvestri—since nicknamed “Silver” after the war—and found on the website an email address for Silver and photos of Silver at Jimmy’s grave. After some time, Silver called him back—and the two hit it off, including discovering they had another mutual friend: a former FBI agent. In addition to Silver and Boylan, another man who served with Reddington in Vietnam—Bob Worra—became involved, and eventually Boylan in 2010 published notices in the Scranton Times that he, Worra, and Silver intended to meet at Reddington’s grave site on Memorial Day weekend that year.
Boylan had been publishing anonymous tributes to Reddington for years already in the local newspaper, but this particular one caught the eye of a distant relative of Reddington’s who never knew him: Jimmy’s niece Lea Portnova, who went to the tribute in 2010 that featured a crowd of about 150, per Kelly’s report in the Scranton Times.
Since then, the phenomenon has grown to the point that now, in 2018, a legendary Marine General, Ron Christmas, came to speak—and present the long-lost medals Reddington never received because his family was gone and could not be awarded them posthumously.
Retired Echo Company commander Col. Terry Ebbert spoke this year, too.
“I think it represents, this is just what this country is all about,” Col. Ebbert told Breitbart News after the event. “These young men and women who grow up with the teachers and their parents and coaches—you don’t build warriors at age 19. They already got what it takes, you’re just training them. But to think to go back 51 years and to thank a true American hero, a Lance Corporal, we’re not talking about a general or a colonel. We’re talking about a Lance Corporal who is obviously respected by the city that raised him. I’ve met numerous people over the past few days who grew up with him, who knew him, who played little league baseball with him. And so I think that the story is we’re a great country and in middle America you have great families who go on to do great things, business-wise and some of them enter the military, and as a nation it’s amazing having the quality of warriors that we really have.”
The ceremony has taken on a life of its own in recent years—and now lasts several days. A few days ago, General Christmas remembered Jimmy Reddington with local elementary school students, and there will be another event at Jimmy’s gravesite on Sunday after this Saturday event at the courthouse. Lots of local politicians will attend, like Mayor Bill Courtwright, Lackawanna County Commissioner Patrick O’Malley, and Lackawanna County court judge emeritus Thomas Munley.
The whole event was organized by former Pennsylvania attorney general Ernie Preate, a Republican, who emceed the ceremony. The chief of staff for Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), a Democrat, read a statement for the crowd that the congressman had read into the congressional record on the floor of the House of Representatives this week.
After the event, Gen. Christmas explained for Breitbart News exclusively what he meant by “the best of America” being represented here.
“Well, first of all—walk up here and look at those slabs, look at the traits that are listed: Loyalty, discipline, and then look at those wonderful quotes and that certainly represents America as you come to this center point,” Christmas said. “Then, secondly, for me, as you look out into the eyes of those veterans, I see service. I see dedication. I see ‘I didn’t ask for thanks but I served my nation and it sure would be nice to be thanked.’ Gatherings like this are so important—they’re important, first of all, to say thank you to the veterans, to those who served. But you know what’s more important? What’s important and brings us together as Americans is what went before. Remember that we’re free today—we’re divided, and we can argue with one another, we can do all of those things because we’re free. And why are we free? Because of those sacrifices all along the way.”
When asked if in the day-to-day political battles Americans sometimes forget about these sacrifices for freedom that were made, General Christmas said, “We do. We do.”
“That’s how it should be,” the general answered next, noting that Republicans and Democrats got together and put aside their differences on Saturday to honor Jimmy Reddington.
General Christmas called on Americans to drop the partisan hatred of President Trump and focus on solving problems for the country.
“That’s how Americans are,” General Christmas said. “What is democracy? It’s about compromise. It’s about trying to take the best of both proposals and bring them into something that is common good and move it forward. In my own personal view, we got to get over all this personal internecine warfare that is going on. We need to come together again. There are too many threats to our nation—externally certainly, you can see them all around. But there are some internal threats as well. What we need to do is come together and say ‘ok, let’s remember what made us great. Let’s remember what made us strong. And hey, you know what the guy in the White House may not be a guy who talks like other politicians but let’s give him a chance. Let’s get on with it. Let’s get on with getting the job done.”
He noted that the president is surrounded by “apolitical” U.S. Marine Corps generals, like White House chief of staff John Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
“We serve our nation,” General Christmas said. “It may be hard, but if the president calls, you go. You serve. And you do it to the best of your ability.”
The general led the veterans assembled, before the ceremony began, in a march from a nearby hotel to the courthouse’s front lawn. They marched to the sound of snare drums and bagpipes played by the Greater Scranton Black Diamond Bagpipers. The official U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard—based at the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. —presented the colors. The hundreds of veterans—many of them who served in Vietnam—proudly marched with General Christmas and Col. Ebbert at the front, leading them through downtown Scranton.
Preate, the former GOP attorney general for Pennsylvania who organized and emceed the event, told Breitbart News afterwards that the whole country can learn from the story of Jimmy Reddington. As a Scranton native, Preate was asked by Jimmy’s fellow Marines to chair the event as he had served as a platoon commander in the 7th Marines across the river in Vietnam from where Jimmy died with the 5th Marines.
“This is a remembrance of people who came back, and people who didn’t come back,” Preate said. “You don’t—this short march today by these veterans was wonderful because they never had a welcome home parade. They had one today with the legend Gen. Ron Christmas and they were—it was just great to see the veterans come out today to honor one of their own. From all wars, we just don’t do this enough. We ought to take a lesson from small towns like Scranton across this country—which there probably are towns across this country like Scranton having solemn ceremonies like this. We ought to do more of them and thank our veterans because we didn’t get our freedoms without their sacrifice.”
Preate was thankful that politics took a backseat here on Saturday, and said it’s something that has happened a lot in Pennsylvania, even when he was attorney general working with a Democratic governor in Robert Casey. “We don’t do that enough today—courtesy,” Preate said. “Jimmy Reddington was a kid from Scranton. He was 19-years-old. What’s a three-star general doing coming down here to make sure his awards get placed in the right spot? That shows you what America is all about. We don’t recognize the poor amongst us and those who sacrificed amongst us. We don’t do enough of that. There’s not enough courtesy, there’s not enough respect, there’s not enough appreciation for the work that people do to make our communities work, whether it’s in government or in the private sector. More respect is needed for one another and their opinions.”