Heroes Remembered in Ceremony
by Mike Rostad, Special to the Kodiak Mirror, June 2003
They gathered around his grave in a safe, quiet place - thousands of miles and 36 long years away from a brutal ambush in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam where Woody Island Native Dan Harmon gave the ultimate sacrifice for his friends and country.
In an act of heroism that defined his life and death, Harmon pulled wounded Ron Coon from a military tank into a protected ditch. When he returned to grab another injured soldier, Ron Bonert, he was shot through the heart.
The second man Harmon tried to save (Ron Bonert) died several days later while being treated in a hospital. Coon was hospitalized extensively before he was released back to his Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol unit. Through the years Coon was haunted and humbled by the realization that his good friend saved him from death, taking no account of his own life.
The first two and a half decades following the Vietnam War were years of silence. Many of the veterans, including Coon, suppressed memories too painful to think about, let alone discuss. But slowly the veterans began to talk and eventually sought each other out.
|"Five eagles circled over the mourners during the service. As [Father Benjamin] came to the part of the blessing for my brother, one flew off and the four remained. I think we know what that means." - Lee Castillo|
Coon developed a website that honored Harmon and other fallen warriors, and gave a background of the brave LRRPs who were organized by Lt. Mike Lapolla.
Relatives of Harmon logged onto that website and contacted Coon.
That was the beginning of a new friendship that brought Coon, Lapolla, and Jim Umberger and Bob Crawford - two other LRRP veterans - Harmon's siblings and other relatives to Woody Island to honor Dan Harmon in a very special way.
Friends and family of Harmon as well as many who had never met him, gathered around his grave where he was buried with high military honors. Thirty-six years after he saved Coon and lost his own life, Harmon was commemorated in a Panikhida - an Eastern Orthodox memorial service conducted and sung by Father Benjamin Peterson.
The service, which took place during the annual Woody Island Tribal Council retreat, also commemorated Fred Simeonoff, another Woody Island Native. A helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War, Simeonoff died when his aircraft crashed after hitting a cable that ran across a river.
|"Freddy was a defender of anybody who couldn't defend himself; he wouldn't let anybody pick on someone smaller or defenseless." - Tina Hoen|
According to Simeonoff's sister, Tina Hoen, "Freddy was a defender of anybody who couldn't defend himself; he wouldn't let anybody pick on someone smaller or defenseless."
Fred and Dan were cousins and they hung around with each other while growing up on Woody Island. They were the only two Kodiak casualties in the Vietnam conflict.
War has a way of bringing heroes to the surface, and according to Father Benjamin, Dan's heroic sacrifice was about as Christ-like as one could get.
"There's probably not a much greater thing that a man can do but to give up his life for another," Peterson said, referencing the words of Jesus Christ in John 15:13. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends."
Noting that Harmon was only 20 years old when [he] sacrificed himself, Peterson said one that young has experienced very little of life.
"To be able to give up your life for your country is really remarkable," he said.
Peterson urged those honoring Harmon to follow his example and spend their lives serving others and being kind and generous.
Harmon's sister, Leanna Castillo, tearfully told the crowd that the family has missed Dan through the years and that the large attendance for his service was a tribute to him. She pulled out a copy of his last letter to the family, written when he had only six months and 15 days left of duty. He was killed shortly before his discharge.
Upon Castillo's request, Coon read the letter, pausing at times to hold back tears. "Some situations are hard to understand" Harmon had written. Unknowingly alluding to his own end, Harmon expressed sorrow over the "loss of lives of Americans who take chances over here."
"I feel sorry for many of the people. The young ones - they're the ones who suffer," Harmon wrote.
After reading the letter, Coon pointed to the grave and said, "That man in there is a hero. He deserved better than what he got. There'll never be a day for which I won't thank him for what he did."
Alluding to the Native spirituality, which is close to nature, Castillo said that five eagles circled over the mourners during the service. "As [Father Benjamin] came to the part of the blessing for my brother, one flew off and the four remained. I think we know what that means," she said.
Dan's four comrades became close to the Harmon family during the week. They aided in beautifying Dan's grave and built a fence around it.
Castillo said the men became like brothers to her. "That's all I need, four more bothers," she said, laughing and wiping tears away. Counting Dan she has seven of them.
Before the people departed from the gravesite, Coon looked at a little boy and asked if he would do him a favor. "Many years from now, we'll be gone. Please don't forget this place, he said.
The little boy, Danny Lohse-McKinnon, nodded soberly. He was named after his great uncle.