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Stu Bykofsky: Battle's end for a good Marine

WHAT DOES it mean to give your life for your country? When those words are spoken, you think of a soldier who died on the battlefield, but it's not always that clean or simple.

WHAT DOES it mean to give your life for your country?

When those words are spoken, you think of a soldier who died on the battlefield, but it's not always that clean or simple.

Michael Graham was a Marine grunt in Vietnam, enlisting right out of Plymouth Whitemarsh High with his buddy Richard Lefler. The teenagers liked to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, chase girls and be chased by trouble. Lefler sized up his prospects and decided to join the Marines. Graham went along.

In Conshohocken, where they had been friends since 1956, a lot of kids enlisted.

"We were poor white trash. There was no alternative to joining the service," and stories of World War II spun by fathers for their sons "made you want to join," Lefler told me.

In August 1967, Lefler and

Graham signed up for three years under the buddy plan, which promised that friends

who joined together would serve together. Almost immediately after arriving in Vietnam, they were separated.

If Lefler feels double-crossed, he won't say so.

"I can't knock the Marines, because I'm a former Marine, no matter how bad it was," Lefler says.

Graham can't speak for himself. He died last Thursday at 61 and was buried yesterday with a 21-gun salute from a Marine honor guard.

Lefler was shipped north to Hue. Graham was sent farther north to Quang Tri province in Vietnam's narrow neck, close enough to the border to be easily infiltrated by battle-hardened North Vietnam Army troops.

"They'd send Marines out, 100 Marines against 4,000 NVA soldiers," Lefler says. Graham was told to "walk point because he was new."

A rifleman with the 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, Graham was in-country three weeks when he was caught in a murderous rice-paddy ambush. A deadly crossfire tore the sky apart as the Marines took heavy casualties.

Graham's back, arms and legs were sliced by shrapnel, his head broken by a bullet that tore into his brain. He was expected to die before he could be medivacked out, Lefler says. "He fooled them all. He lived a long time."

How he lived is the major part of the story.

His younger brother Dan, 57, a driver for Conicelli Toyota, of Conshohocken, remembers that when he was a kid newspaper carrier, big brother Mike "would get up an hour before time to fold my papers, or if I was sick, deliver them for me."

When he returned home from Vietnam with a 100 percent disability "he was kind of a completely different person," Dan says. "He probably lost, I would say, maybe 60 percent of his mentality."

Graham suffered with a paralyzed right side, slurred speech and comprehension problems. Once home, he spent some time in a veterans hospital, didn't like it and came to live with his family. That didn't work out because he needed supervision and nursing care that his family couldn't provide.

Along with other men from other wars, including the current ones, who come home less than they were, Graham spent his life in either V.A. hospitals or private nursing homes, some bad, some good. "Mike was stuck in purgatory for the longest time," Lefler says.

Graham's last stop was the V.A. hospital in Wilkes-Barre, "the best and cleanest I have ever seen," according to the surviving brother, who is my father-in-law. But being 100 miles away made frequent family visits difficult. "He never complained about his injuries or what happened to him," Dan Graham says.

Lefler, who retired from his job as a truck driver after his own Vietnam wounds acted up, feels guilty about having led Graham into the service.

"My heart's been broken since 1968 over this," he says. After settling into civilian life, Lefler married, got a job, had children.

Graham had none of those things. No children, no wife, no job, no travel, no freedom. From the time he was wounded on March 5, 1968, the horizon of his life was the width of his hospital bed.

He didn't die on the battlefield, but Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Graham surely gave his life for his country.

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