Sunday, November 16, 2003

Highlands coach doesn't need a medal


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If you spend any time around athletics at Highlands High School, you know, or at least know of, Ron Welch. He's officially an assistant football coach, but he does anything that is asked of him.

When Highlands plays a Friday night game, somebody has to transfer the videotape of the game to a cassette that can be viewed on the school's video equipment. It takes all night. Welch does it, and still comes in on Saturday mornings to set up the video equipment for the coaches.

He cleans locker rooms, takes tickets, attaches pads to goal posts, makes copies of tapes for college recruiters and a whole lot more, according to Highlands athletic director Dale Mueller.

"I just can't say enough about Ron Welch," Muller gushed. "He's just a perfect guy, so selfless. He does whatever he can for the benefit of the team and the kids. And he never complains, just always works hard.

"What a role model for all these young people," Mueller said.

Ron Welch does it all on one leg. He lost the other one in Vietnam. But you would never know about his prosthetic limb unless you asked.

"I'm used to it," Welch said with a shrug. "It's more or less an inconvenience, putting it on and taking it off every day."

On Aug. 16, 1970, Welch was 19. A few months earlier, he had been playing quarterback for Bellevue - "I scored a touchdown against Highlands." But like so many other teen-agers of that time, he ended up in the jungle, far from home, and scared.

Welch was a sergeant and a squad leader. That day he was supposed to have some time off. But an airstrip was under mortar fire. Sgt. Welch and other squad leaders were ordered to take some men, grab some machetes and hack through the thick brush until the enemy was discovered.

It was hot. It was muddy. It was late afternoon. They came to a path that had been cleared. Welch knew that the enemy often booby-trapped clear paths. He suggested cutting a new path. A superior disagreed. They argued. Welch lost.

"We weren't 100 meters down the path," Welch said. "And there they were."

The squad was ambushed, caught in crossfire. A landmine went off. Three men died. One was blown in half. Welch was thrown in the air. An artery in his right leg was shredded by shrapnel. His foot was gone. He could see intestines oozing out of a hole in his stomach. The blood was thick and warm.

As people often say about accidents, "it was all in slow motion."

Welch threw his grenades at the enemy. He still tried to fight. A medic saved his life, but not his leg.

"He put a tourniquet on my leg," Welch said. "They told us in basic training that when they do that nine out of 10 times you lose the leg.

"I watched a guy behind me die that day," Welch said. "I had taken life for granted - until then."

Because of his wounds, Welch spent 18 months in military hospitals. He's gone through 30 surgeries, one just a few years ago to replace a knee and a hip.

He is neither bitter nor sullen. He earned several medals - including a Silver Star, Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts - and not just because he was hurt in battle. He had saved villagers during a firefight and was recognized for valor in combat.

But he was also spat on by war protestors and called a baby killer after returning to the States.

"That hurt," Welch said.

You could say a lot to men like Ron Welch. One word comes to mind:

Thanks.

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E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com. Crowley interviews Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce president Gary Toebben this week on ICN6's On the Record, which is broadcast daily on Insight Communications Channel 6.




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