(Retired) Master Sgt. Max J. Beilke
Hometown: Laurel, Md., USA
Occupation: Civilian employee, U.S. Army
Location: Ground, Pentagon
Max Beilke, 69, the last U.S. combat soldier to leave Vietnam, was among the first to be declared missing at the start of a new war.
Beilke, a retired Army master sergeant living in Laurel, was working in the Pentagon on veterans' issues when hijackers rammed American Airlines Flight 77 into the building.
Beilke, a quiet midwesterner, was drafted into the Korean War. He served almost a year in Vietnam as the United States negotiated terms for its withdrawal from the country. The Army listed him as the last soldier to leave Saigon, on March 29, 1973, although Marines guarding the U.S. Embassy stayed until the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975.
As Beilke boarded a C-130 transport plane for home, a North Vietnamese colonel gave him a rattan table mat with a pagoda woven into it, a scene that unfolded on national television and gave the low-key Beilke a certain celebrity.
"It was all over the TV and radios when Max was the last one out of Vietnam -- then for something like this to happen," said Lucille Johnson, one of Beilke's four surviving sisters.
She remembered her only brother fondly. "One boy growing up with five girls tells you a lot: He grew up spoiled," she said, adding that when he died, "Max was doing exactly what he would have liked to have done."
Beilke grew up on a small farm near Alexandria, Minn., west of Minneapolis. He finished high school in 1950, was drafted in 1952 and served two years in Korea. In 1956, he reenlisted. He met the woman who became his wife, Lisa, while he was stationed in Germany, where he taught local children to play baseball. Together, they raised two daughters.
By the time he went to Vietnam in July 1972, Beilke was a 20-year veteran. He retired in 1974 and held various jobs before he went to work for the Army as a civilian and began lobbying for veterans in 1984.
"If they had problems, they'd come to him," Johnson said. "He liked being helpful to somebody."
Like so many Americans in the days since the attack, Johnson has displayed a U.S. flag outside her Evansville, Minn., home. Beilke had given her the flag, which once flew over the Capitol, as a birthday present.
-- Nelson Hernandez
Source: The Washington Post, AP and washingtonpost.com
The profiles in this feature were written in the months following Sept. 11, 2001.
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