VETERAN’S DAY: Painful Silence

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ironton — Step inside the den in Butch Huff’s Ironton home and you’ll immediately notice that he has a penchant for forging celebrity friendships.

Ask him about his personal relationship with legendary college basketball coach Bobby Knight or film actor Robert Mitchum, and the gregarious Huff is quick to smile and provide an interesting story.

Pose a question about the photo of him with former president George H.W. Bush, or the autographed photos of The Dalai Llama, Muhammed Ali, Kinky Freidman, Christopher Walken or Frank Sinatra and be prepared to become engrossed in his answer.

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Spark a conversation by asking about the Archie Griffin autographed Ohio State Buckeyes football helmet or the Cleveland Browns helmet signed by Jim Brown and watch him switch into story-telling mode.

Or, you could ask about the circle of pictures hanging just behind his lounge chair of former presidents Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Carter and both Bushes who, like Sinatra, Freidman, Mitchum and Knight, all scribbled personal messages to Huff on their photos.

But whatever you do, don’t ask about the Bronze Star he was awarded in Vietnam.

Huff, a member of the 1st Battalion, 7th Infantry Division in Bien Hoa, Vietnam, was awarded the U.S. Armed Forces’ fourth highest combat award for extreme courage and leadership against hostile forces while serving with the Army in 1969-70.

Other awards are displayed in a small frame in his den; awards he has no desire to talk about at length.

The Bronze Star is nowhere in sight.

When it comes to reliving life on a foreign battlefield, Huff, 58, is not unlike most war veterans…especially Vietnam vets. His smile fades and his eyes look away at the mention of those times. He simply doesn’t want to talk much about it.

Although he was decorated with one of the military’s highest honors, the former platoon sergeant prefers not to focus on personal achievements.

Enter 4-year-old Kaeli, a Chinese native Huff and his wife, Lisa, adopted two months shy of her first birthday.

Kaeli tells daddy she wants to go outside and play with a neighborhood child. Huff diverts all of his attention to her, patiently assists the young girl in changing her clothes, and then, as she runs off with a quick wave, speaks of contradictions.

“If somebody had told me forty years ago that I would be adopting an Asian child, I would have told them they were crazy,” the 1968 Ironton High School grad laughed.

“But I think I’m probably a better father to her than I was to my other two girls (Julie and Katie),” he continued, settling back in his lounge chair. “I think with age you become more patient.”

His wisdom and patience were apparent as he stood and produced an old photo and spoke of the two young Vietnamese girls who were pictured.

“I think about them often,” he said with a fond smile. “I hope they are in their forties now and thriving.”

Then, settling back into his chair to resume watching the Bengals/Ravens game, he explained the effect little girls like Kaeli could have on others in our society, if not the world. “If everyone adopted a child of a different ethnicity, there would be no racism,” he noted. “When I look at her, I don’t see ethnicity. I see a child.”

As the conversation steered back toward veterans, he paused for a moment and then offered his thoughts. “I think it’s a shame that people, as well as the media, have become complacent about our people in the military right now. They’ve stopped wearing their flag pins and being supportive. They’ve kind of forgotten.”

Huff, a former Ironton City Council member who presently occupies the position of Mercedes-Benz sales manager at Fannin Imports in Cannonsburg, Ky., also expressed dismay about Korean War veterans and their lack of media attention.

Then, while patiently attending to little Kaeli yet again, this time to ease her concern about the stranger in her home asking her daddy so many questions, he explained that his military service wasn’t exactly performed by choice.

“I won the lottery,” he laughed. “Only problem was, it was the draft lottery.”

Humor is Huff’s strong suit, a talent he was crafting all those years ago amid the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers; like the time he placed a dead rat on the chest of one of his sleeping combat brothers, or the day that same brother paid him back by urinating on his head while he was taking a shower.

“I wouldn’t take a million dollars to do it again,” he said of his year in Vietnam. “But, I also wouldn’t accept a million dollars (in exchange) for the experiences.”

Like most war veterans, Huff likes to keep most of those experiences to himself.

Speaking of winning the lottery, little Kaeli has hit the jackpot.