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A soldier's tale in plastic and blood

BEE, Neb. — Inez Davis kept two toy plastic soldiers atop her stereo in front of a couple of pictures of her two sons.

Gregory and Stephen Holloway were away at war. But Inez kept in touch with them daily. Every morning, she walked over, touched the soldiers and said hello. One sunny July morning in 1968, she walked to the stereo and found the soldier who was poised to throw a grenade lying on the floor.

That one was Gregory.

"Oh, no, you don't, Gregory," his mother wrote in recalling that moment years later. "Just get back up there! We all love you and need you."

"God, keep them safe," she prayed and went on to her day's work.

Half a world away, 21-year-old Gregory Holloway was fighting for his life. They had been up in the mountains near the Vietnamese border with Laos for days and had moved onto higher ground through a triple canopy jungle. The North Vietnamese were dug deep into the caves.

One day, walking point as he always chose to do, Holloway walked right into the fire of two machine guns. He dove for cover and was pinned down almost all day. It wasn't the first time he emerged unscathed.

But on July 3, 1968, his life changed.

"I was blown up," he says. "It blew me over the top of Don Fredenburg (a PFC from Georgia) into a ravine. I was lying on my back with a hole in the right side of my face, drowning in my own blood. They rolled me over. Marc Folden, our medic, was stuffing rags in all the holes."

It had been a grenade.

Two days after the toy soldier fell to the floor in Nebraska, Gregory's wife at the time called his mother to say she had been told he was missing. They didn't know it yet, but he was in a hospital in Japan.

He doesn't remember much of the 10 days that followed the explosion of the grenade. It blew open the back of his skull and tore into his head and body with jagged pieces of shrapnel, some of which remain embedded in him today.

"I first woke up on the USS Sanctuary, a hospital ship," he says. "Everything is pretty much a blur."

But he does remember that first taste of vanilla ice cream and Jell-O.

Back in his unit, everyone thought he was dead after seeing him hauled out of the jungle with blood pouring out, washing away some of the bandages.

Fredenburg and Folden did not know the guy they called Scrounger and Nebraska and Red had survived until 30 years later, when they ran into one another at a Fourth of July reunion in Washington.

Today, Holloway lives in a frame house with a huge backyard at the end of Beech Street in tiny Bee, pop. 209, where the main intersection sports a sign with a colorful bee and a reminder to "Bee Friendly."

Bee is north of Seward a couple of country miles off the main road, which in this case is Nebraska 15, and that suits Holloway just fine. He lives with his third wife, Rene, who he married in 2004, and Chevelle, a black lab and Frisbee expert, and Malibu, a little white cross-breed poodle and accomplished noisemaker. And there's a cluttered corner office and some rather stunning art work, including landscapes he has created, and shelves of mementos and 7th Cavalry gear and accumulated memories from his 65 years.

But there also is work to be done.

"I try to look after veterans with disabilities and talk to students at schools about what veterans have done," Holloway says. "It's not a have-to; it's a want-to."

Veterans need and deserve functional, efficient, better health care, he says.

They deserve the benefits they have earned. And the federal government needs to provide the funding required to modernize the antiquated Veterans Administration Hospital in Omaha, he says.

Holloway is state commander of the Disabled American Veterans, and there is lots of work to do.

After he got back from war, he had nightmares for a time.

"Dreams like I'm a prisoner in a building. It's something like a hootch. There are shadows of little kids and soldiers with long bayonets killing them and I can't do anything to stop it."

Survivor's guilt.

Holloway says he does not hate the soldier who threw the grenade.

"He was doing his job. The NVA (North Vietnamese Army) were good fighters. I'd like to go back to Vietnam. I'd love to sit down and visit with some of the soldiers who fought against us. I'm not mad at them."

Holloway did not expect to return from Vietnam, and, after experiencing a troubled youth, wasn't even sure he should.

"I always walked point," he says. "I didn't think I'd come back."

Amazingly, he not only lived and recovered from his devastating wounds — receiving his second Purple Heart for combat wounds in Vietnam — but he even returned to duty at Fort Knox.

"I healed up OK," Holloway says. "I was lucky. I saw guys in the hospital all burnt up and with missing limbs. I decided I better get myself back together. No woe-is-me."

His mother recalled a conversation with her son after he came home in which he said he had felt "too tired to fight any longer," and then "all of a sudden, I knew I had to fight."

"I know she considered that soldier with the grenade to be me," Holloway says.

"I know what she said when she picked up that soldier off the floor. Maybe that's what saved my life. I don't know."

Six years ago, Inez Davis died at age 93.

And today, on a shelf back in Holloway's corner-room office, there's a little plastic soldier that used to be him.

Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com