A friend once told me about a funeral he’d attended, where the minister delivering the eulogy talked about the deceased’s dash. He said, "Our friend here has died. And he’s going to be buried. And he’s going to have a tombstone. And on that tombstone there are going to be two dates – the date when he was born, and the date when he died. And in between those two dates there’s going to be a little dash. That little dash represents an entire lifetime. All any of us gets is that one little dash.
"What you do with your dash is up to you."
When Lee Coffman retired from the U.S. Army, after twenty years of service, in 1989, he figured he’d done just about everything with his dash he was going to do. He planned to spend the rest of his life fishing (Lee had never married). He bought a bass boat and got started.
But that didn’t last long, because Lee’s dash wasn’t anywhere near done yet. After a few weeks he was bored, and on a visit to see his sister at the school where she taught, he decided to embark on another career. He decided to become a teacher. So he did.
I met Lee not long after that, because he had started dating Suzanne Machen, of Brady. The Machen family had already had a huge influence on my life, and I was glad Suzanne had found someone she seemed to be happy with. And the more I got to know Lee, the more impressed I was with him.
Lee was one of those people you couldn’t look at without smiling, probably because he was always smiling himself. He was outgoing, friendly, loud, and gregarious. He didn’t just say hello, he was like Dolby Surround Sound on a stereo system. He boomed HELLO. It would have been impossible to ignore him if you’d wanted to.
Once, when the subject came up, Lee told me he’d been in the army. That was all he said. "I was in the army." But when I attended Lee’s funeral recently, I learned that Lee was in the army like Alvin York was in the army. Like Audie Murphy was in the army. Lee wasn’t just in the army. He was a hero.
Lee dropped out of 11th grade to enlist in 1969, on his seventeenth birthday. By the time he turned eighteen he was leading a platoon of 48 men. He became a Ranger and a Green Beret, and eventually retired as a First Sergeant. He served three tours in Vietnam, and earned 21 medals. Not just the ‘I Was There’ medals.’ Lee was awarded the Silver Star, the Cross of Gallantry, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Bronze Star with four oak leaf clusters. And five Purple Hearts.
Now, I have no idea what Lee did to earn those medals. But I know the Silver Star is the third highest award a member of the U.S. Army can receive from the military, and it is only earned through conspicuous gallantry in combat. And I know that, when commendations for medals are submitted to the upper echelon, they are usually bumped down a notch, which means Lee was likely put up for a Distinguished Service Cross. And if so, he probably deserved it.
The Bronze Star is right behind the Silver Star, and Lee earned five of those. Which means he probably deserved five more Silver Stars. Besides, of course, being wounded five times while serving his country. If Lee Coffman wasn’t a hero, neither was Jimmy Doolittle.
And then there was Grenada. Lee’s unit served there during the political coup in October 1983. His unit, at one point, got pinned down in an old building. Their radio had been shot up, so they patched together an old telephone line they found, and managed to get hold of an operator. They used a credit card one of the guys had with him, and called their base in Tennessee. When they finally got someone there to believe who they were, and where they were, air support was finally sent to help them out.
When the movie Heartbreak Ridge was made, that incident was depicted using a squad of Recon Marines. And the role of the unit CO, Lee’s part, was played by Clint Eastwood. And he never mentioned it.
I ran into Lee recently, just a couple of weeks before he died of a heart attack at age 57. He was just as loud, just as friendly, just as happy, and just as full of life as he’d ever been. I can almost still feel his handshake, and hear his HELLO. I can definitely still feel his warmth.
Lee left his wife, Suzanne, to raise their two sons, Bradley and Ryan, without their father. That won’t be easy, but there were never a couple of boys who had a greater role model to follow in a dad. Any way you look at it, Lee Coffman was a hero and a Great American, and he did more with his dash than just about anyone else I’ve known . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker. Write to him at PO Box 1600, Mason, Tx 76856 or firstname.lastname@example.org