September 19, 2012 - Thank you. Those are two words that not many Vietnam veterans heard when they returned home in the 1960s and 1970s after fighting a long, costly and controversial war.
Vietnam veteran Norm Linto, of Oxford, chats with Kyle Hayden, a worker at RLM Industries in Oxford. Hayden, who’s an Ortonville resident, is a Navy veteran who served from 1998-02. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
But those were the words Oxford resident Norm Linto, who spent a year serving in Vietnam, repeated over and over again to the management and employees of RLM Industries, Inc., located at 100 Hummer Lake Rd. in Oxford, when he visited the plant Sept. 12.
He was thanking them for the stainless steel cross that hangs around his neck – a cross that now adorns the necks of thousands of other veterans, who fought in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It reminds me of friends and fallen comrades along with self-forgiveness and hope," said Linto, who served in the U.S. Army from 1966-69. "I wear it every day. It gives me peace . . . I just wanted to stop by and thank the manufacturer."
It's called "The Combat Cross" and it's manufactured by RLM Industries for distribution at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center (formerly the North Chicago VA Medical Center) in Illinois. The cross is given to veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries.
Originally, it was called "The Vietnam Cross," but the name was changed to meet the needs of young veterans returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each part of the cross symbolizes something meaningful.
The bootlace – black for Vietnam and tan for Iraq/Afghanistan – from which the cross hangs stands for all living veterans. The knot stands for the ties they have to each other. The black stands for the granite of the Vietnam memorial wall and the POW/MIA flag. Family members, like spouses, get blue crosses.
The edges stand for pain and suffering. The silver stands for never forgetting those who died and those who are still alive.
RLM began making the crosses in 2008 at the request of Father William Vander Heyden, chief of chaplain services at the Chicago facility. Each cross is about 1½ inches tall and weighs about 2 ounces.
Five years ago, RLM made its first 500 crosses. Since then, the company has produced an additional 2,500 crosses, according to Rick Meachum, who's vice president of sales and in charge of engineering for RLM.
"I just talked to (Vander Heyden) last week and he's down to about 300 (crosses), so we're making another 1,000 pieces right now," Meachum said.
It costs about $5 to make each cross and RLM has been producing them at no charge right from the beginning. "It's a privilege," Meachum said. "(Vander Heyden) says there's patients that come in clenching these things and that tells him this person is in need of some hope – he's been damaged (by war).
"You wouldn't think that a little piece of metal would mean so much. When I hear stories like that, there's no reservations (on our part) to keep feeding that organization crosses."
Linto received his cross when he spent six weeks at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in May and June receiving treatment for his PTSD. "It was the best thing I've ever done," he said. "I wish I would have done it 30 years sooner."
Linto has experiences with PTSD since returning home from the war. "I've always had some problems," he said. "You kind of bury that stuff. It's always in the shadows. That stuff never goes away. It's always in your back pocket. Sometimes you pull your wallet out and it comes out with it."
Linto noted how PTSD "creeps up on you" and you never know what's going to trigger it. For instance, he's been feeling "all twitchy and wound up again" ever since the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were shot and killed Sept. 11 by Islamist gunmen in Benghazi, Libya.
For years, Linto thought he could handle his issues on his own. But when he no longer felt able to keep his demons at bay, he started seeing a doctor in Michigan.
"It was starting to affect me everyday. I just couldn't keep pushing it away," Linto said. "I couldn't let the steam out of the kettle – things were building up again."
During their visits together, the doctor often told Linto about how great the program is at the Lovell Federal Health Care Center. He finally decided to give it a try and he was very pleased with the whole experience.
"It's a wonderful program," he said. "I was there for about two weeks before I finally relaxed and understood it."
Linto was particularly impressed by Vander Heyden who works with the veterans through one-on-one counseling and in group sessions.
"The discussions in there with him are so helpful," he said. "He does an excellent job of being able to handle all the faiths and reaching out and helping people."
It was through Vander Heyden that Linto first encountered the Combat Cross.
"He explained what it was, what it meant and where it was made," Linto said. "When he said Oxford, Michigan, I said, 'I know where that's at.' I must have went by (RLM Industries) a hundred times."
Last week, Linto finally got an opportunity to visit RLM, tour the plant and personally thank everyone involved in making these special crosses.
"Some of the veterans have tears in their eyes when they get one of these crosses. They're very emotional," he explained. "The guys working in the plant don't get to see that. They don't get to meet these people. They don't know what it means to the individual."
"Norm's the first veteran we've met (who's received one of these crosses)," Meachum said. "He's come with a thankful heart. I couldn't ask for anything more than that."
Meachum believes it's they who should be thanking Linto for his service to this country. "It's because of people like Norm that we have the freedom of press, the freedom of speech and the freedom to be able to manufacture castings and do business," he said.
Meachum wished to note that these crosses are only for "specific veterans" who have been "damaged" by war and for certain family members like their spouses.
"These people that wear them are special," he said. "If you see someone with one, you really should stop them, shake their hand and say thank you."
When the Leader first published a story about them in 2008, RLM Industries received a lot of phone calls from people who wanted one. "People want the cross because it's a cross," Meachum said. "I have to tell them they can't have one. This cross is only for someone who's gone through some anguish and some pain, who needs treatment and some help."
"The owner's wife wanted one and I had to tell her no," Meachum noted. "Once she understood who it was for, it was no problem."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.