Staff Sgt. Steve Harding’s career in the U.S. Army can be charted through the many posthumous medals he earned, including a Vietnam Service Medal, a Silver Star and a Purple Heart.
His widow keeps those medals neatly arranged in a shadowbox, but there’s one spot on the black velvet she’s been waiting 44 years to fill.
On Saturday, Shelby Harding finally received her late husband’s Combat Infantryman Badge at a special graveside service at Hillcrest Cemetery. The badge is reserved for service members who have seen active ground combat.
For a 74-year-old widow who still dreams of her husband coming home, it’s a tribute to his sacrifice.
“You never forget your memories. They’re there all the time,” she said.
Saturday was also her first opportunity to meet some of the soldiers who served alongside her husband.
On April 26, 1998, 30 years to the day Harding was killed near Khe Sanh, his widow received a call from Larry Willis of Tifton, Ga.
After convincing her it was not a bad joke, Willis said he was battle buddies with Harding and had talked with him the morning he was shot.
Though they were in different platoons, Willis and Harding talked often because they were both non-commissioned officers and lived in Georgia.
“The only day I cried in Vietnam was searching for his pack” after he was killed, Willis said.
Shelby Harding had long given up on the hope that she would meet someone who had served with her husband. She had tried talking with soldiers coming back to Fort Gordon from Vietnam, but there was no one from his unit.
“It was almost unbelievable,” Harding said.
The two developed a friendly relationship over the phone and occasionally corresponded by mail. Willis revealed that he spent decades trying to put his experiences behind him and ignoring the mental stress of combat.
“But it’s getting harder with time to deal with those memories,” Willis said.
After deciding to find his old war friends, Willis discovered that many of them were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We stuffed it down inside of us; it’s just now coming out,” Willis said.
In his efforts to track down other members of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, Willis found contact information for Shelby Harding.
Over the years, she has learned more about her husband’s service in Vietnam, but it wasn’t until last Thanksgiving that she revealed he had never received the Combat Infantryman Badge. Through an officer with the 1st Cavalry – now based at Fort Hood, Texas – and a military relative, those orders were confirmed and the badge was prepared.
Saturday’s ceremony also represented closure for Willis. Many of the men of the 1st Cavalry haven’t seen each other for more than 40 years, but often it feels like yesterday, Willis said. While they cannot forget the terrors of war, they focus on events like Saturday’s to bring them a measure of peace.
“At the age we are, we’re just trying to make them good memories,” Willis said.