Before Dennis Walker became a mine inspector and a father of two daughters, he soldiered with the U.S. Army for about two years in Vietnam.
"I was a point man, the guy who walks first," the Fayette County man said in a telephone interview.
Now 63, the Perryopolis resident is among 14 Pennsylvania veterans who will be inducted today in the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland. The ceremony begins at 2 p.m. and the public is invited.
Sgt. Walker and his platoon were on a reconnaissance mission in Vietnam on May 10, 1970, when they were pinned down by heavy mortar, rocket and small arms fire.
"Five guys who got way out in front of us were pinned down in a ravine. I was the point guy. I heard them call my name. I had to get the bunkers that were around them in order to get them out," Sgt. Walker recalled.
So, he said, "I jumped over a ravine and had a couple of guys cover me," with ammunition.
He risked his life five times to hurl grenades at enemy bunkers, then ran out and had to be resupplied.
"I was lucky because a mortar hit right behind me," he recalled, adding that the two soldiers who were handing him more grenades were killed.
For his bravery, Sgt. Walker received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Two days earlier, on May 8, 1970, he risked his life to protect his comrades by lobbing grenades at the enemy during an ambush in Chantrea, Cambodia. For that heroism, Sgt. Walker received the Silver Star, which was presented to him while he was in Southeast Asia. He left Vietnam in September 1970 and spent the last six months of his military service at a base in Freiberg, Germany.
Even now, Sgt. Walker said, he has mixed emotions about being singled out.
"You can win a most valuable player award and it's not the same as being recognized as a vet. All your teammates aren't there to celebrate with you as a whole. You don't do something to stand out. You do it because at the time, your brother needed you."
On sleepless nights, he remembers the soldiers he served with who died in battle.
"You see the faces. They never change. They don't get any older."
When Sgt. Walker's commanding officer, Col. Karl Lowe, learned that the Distinguished Service Cross had not been properly presented to him, he arranged a ceremony at the 99th ARCOM in Oakdale with three generals present.
"It was never properly presented to him. He had the citation. He did not get the medal," said U.S. Army Col. Lowe, who is retired at age 70 and living in Fairfax, Va.
One of the best parts about that day in 1987, Col. Lowe recalled, was that Sgt. Walker's family and his wife's family were able to attend.
"Dennis' dad had been a soldier in the Sixth Armored Division in World War II and had never seen a general in his entire time in the Army. He was so overwhelmed. Here were three generals honoring his son and he had never seen one," Col. Lowe said.
About a week later, Sgt. Walker's father died.
Today, when this son of a coal miner and native of California, Pa., is inducted into the museum's Hall of Valor, his wife, Annette, will attend. His daughters, Kristy Ziegler, an attorney who lives in South Park, and Mandy Hartman, a teacher and volleyball coach at Frazier High School, will be there, too, along with six grandchildren.
In April, Sgt. Walker retired from the state Bureau of Mines, where he had been chief of the division for state inspectors for eight years.
One good result of his military experience, Sgt. Walker said, are the close bonds he formed with the people he met.
"You can work with someone for 30 years and you're not going to form the same relationship that you do in a war zone. You live with them. You drink with them. You shower with them. I'm still in contact with a lot of my old buddies. We have annual reunions."
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1648. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM