Sammy Davis, medal of honor recipient in front of the american flag at shot show

Due to COVID restrictions, the 2021 SHOT Show was mostly canceled. I say mostly, because there was still an attempt to hold a virtual show. SHOT is more than just a trade show. Sometime the best things you'll see at the show are not on the show floor; they may not even be at the show at all. That was the case for the SHOT Show a couple years back.

 Stand Up America banner from the Special Operations Network charity group

Allow me a moment, and please stick with story to the end—it starts a little slow, but you will not be disappointed if you make it to the end. Seldom do I write in first person or blatantly allow my personal biases to dictate content, but this is an exception. SHOT Show 2018 was full of the normal hustle and bustle. New handguns, shotguns, rifles, and optics were everywhere—certainly as far as the eye could see. There was no shortage of new clothing options, accessories, ammunition, magazines—all the toys and gear we crave. Yet, the best thing I saw at the 2018 SHOT Show was not on the show floor. In fact, it was not even at the show. My top pick for 2018 was a harmonica.

That’s right, a good ol’ fashion mouth harp. Although, new, the harmonica likely cost less than $25, I was deeply saddened to realize I did not have the money to buy it. The harmonica itself was not exceptional, but the gentleman offering it for auction was.

Let me backup a step. Prior to the SHOT Show, I received an invite to a charity event. I did not know anything about the event or even what cause it was supporting. I almost declined thinking,“Going would probably waste a good evening, and before I leave, I’ll be fleeced for a donation.” Nonetheless, I agreed and upon arrival received a text message: “Tell them to bring you to the Riton Optics table.” I also recognized Richard Marcinko, the first Commander of SEAL Team Six being interviewed at the door.

patriotic americans standing for the national anthem with their hands over their hearts at the SHOT Show

Once inside, I saw the graphics on the wall and realized I was at an event for the Special Operations Charity Network (SOCN). A slight tinge of guilt hit me as I recalled my earlier reluctance and quickly took some cash from one pocket to the next in preparation for the donation I now wanted to give.

The emcee took the stage and the first performer came to sing the National Anthem. Typically known for being a popular hip-hop club in one of the major casinos, the staff seemed rather perplexed as the crowd stood and saluted or placed a hand over their heart for not just the first verse, but multiple verses of the National Anthem. The emcee resumed his place and wanted to hear from every red-blooded American who loved the flag and the United States, and stated flatly (in terms and language perhaps unrepeatable here) what he thought of anyone who did not.

Next up was a short synopsis of what the SOCN and acknowledgement of the Wu brothers and their $10,000 donation from the SEAL Foundation. Then, the emcee announced Sammy Lee Davis, Medal of Honor recipient, Vietnam.

Sammy Davis Medal of Honor recipient at Shot Show 2021

Even if you have never heard of Sammy, you likely watched the ceremony when President Johnson presented him the Medal of Honor—you just did not know it. However, thanks to Hollywood, you saw Tom Hanks face in the movie Forest Gump superimposed over Sammy, as President Johnson presented him the Medal of Honor.

Now, I was in a room full of current and former Special Forces guys, other combat veterans and invited guests. With a crowd like that, you not only expect a few war stories, you are ready to seek them out. Sammy took the stage and told his story. It started out with Sammy in a foxhole in Vietnam, waiting for an enemy ambush. The sun was beginning to peek out, and the sky was ready to turn pink. Sammy backed up.

The time came when Sammy’s mother had not received a letter from him for over two months, so she contacted the Red Cross. The query was forwarded to the Pentagon who realized that it had requests from over half of the mothers (I do not remember the exact number, but I think it was closer to 80 or 90 percent) of those serving in the same company as Sammy and realized something must be amiss. Sammy returned to the story of his foxhole.

Harmonica and presentation box

He was on guard duty at dawn. Quietly, he heard the footsteps coming through the rice paddy. He strained, looking for the approaching enemy. As the figure took shape, he realized it was about 6’5”— not typical size of the enemy, but the exact size of his Captain. The officer climbed into the foxhole to inquire why he had not been writing home, and effectively communicated the ramifications of another visit to the foxhole should he have to come back because Sammy did not write home. We all laughed.

Sammy then went back to the foxhole and recalled a friend he met during basic training. Sammy was a private, but his friend was prior military and now an E-6. At a recent mail call, Sammy received a harmonica from his mother—after he started writing again. The E-6 (I cannot for the life of me remember his name) noticed him opening it and wanted him to play Shenandoah for him. Sammy replied that he did not know how. The large E-6 said sure you can and hummed a few bars. Sammy explained, “No, I mean I do not know how to play the harmonica…” However, when an E-6 gives a private an order… Sammy did his best.

In the following months Sammy did learn to play the harmonica, including Shenandoah of course. He played the harmonica often to pass the time, and Shenandoah regularly for his friend. The thought running through my mind, and likely everyone else in the room was, “Wouldn’t that give away your position to the enemy?” As if Sammy was reading our collective minds, he said, “Oh yeah! I forgot to mention, I was assigned to an artillery battalion. There was no hiding. When you are in Artillery, the enemy knows exactly where you are at.” Again, the crowd erupted in laughter.

Sammy then recalled when his friend was killed in action and, choked up, how he reflected on the harmonica and Shenandoah when he received the news. Sammy said, as a recipient of the Medal of Honor, when the Vietnam Wall was first dedicated, Sammy was invited to the ceremony. Sammy then recited the panel and location of his friend’s name of the Wall, and we all shared the moment. Sammy recalled not being able to sleep to the night before the dedication, so Sammy donned his uniform and headed to the Wall just before dawn.

He said there were about 25 other vets at the Wall when he arrived. After finding his buddy’s name and running his fingers across it, Sammy took the harmonica, there is always a harmonica in the pocket of his uniform to this day, he took it out and played Shenandoah for his old friend.

When Sammy finished Shenandoah, he saluted and was astonished as he turned to find hundreds of his fellow vets had gathered behind him, either at attention or saluting. Quickly, he realized that they had been laid up behind the tree line, waiting for the sun to break before they came down to the Wall. However, when he played, they simply understood. No words are, or were, necessary among brothers.

Special Operations Charity Network red white and blue SOCN logo

Sammy finished his story, choked back his own emotions, and played Shenandoah on his harmonica for us. Besides Sammy, there were true warriors in the room, “been there, done that” guys. Everyone was obviously touched; not every eye was wet, but several were not dry as well. Then, Sammy took it a step further.

Choked up, he offered the harmonica to the highest bidder with all proceeds going to the Special Operations Charity Network. I quickly surveyed the how much money I had in my pocket and available cash that I could readily get my hands on. However, as expected, the bid quickly skyrocketed by $500 increments. In the end, the winning bid was out of my personal range. Although, I again decided to shift another $100 bill to the donation pocket and was sure to leave it on my way out. No big surprise, several others did the same.

Some were surprised though by the fact that Sammy never mentioned why he received the Silver Star, Medal of Honor, Purple Hearts or any other award. However, the story Sammy told resonated in the hearts and minds of every combat veteran in the room. They understood. The real stories of combat are not about what about what they did; they are about the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine next to them. It’s not the story we bring home, but the friends we leave behind.

Today, I ordered a harmonica online. I do not know how to play it. Likely, I will never learn. However, the harmonica will sit on the mantle of my home as a reminder of Sammy and those we left behind.

To support the Special Operations Charity Network, please click here.

Which veteran charity do you support? Share your answer in the comment section.

January 24, 2021 — David Dolbee

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