Editor's note: This story is based on interviews with John Sharp, the Medal of Honor citation and previous interviews with other Omaha Vietnam War veterans.
He stands in his kitchen on Christmas Day, his wife beside him for support. He picks up his phone to call an unfamiliar area code in a city he can't find on a map. He needs to speak with a woman he's never met.
John Sharp's hands tremble as he dials the rotary phone.
It is Dec. 25, 1973. John Sharp is a young Nassau County police officer on Long Island. He chases very bad men into very dark alleys. Before that he served as an Army infantryman — a grunt — in the infamous rice paddies of Vietnam's Mekong Delta.
Yet dialing this Omaha phone number is the most terrifying thing he has ever done.
He has been imagining this call for the better part of five years, planning it from beginning to end in his head.
He plans to tell the woman on the line who he is and what her son did in the pitch-black of a Vietnam night just weeks before Memorial Day 1968.
He will thank her. And maybe John Sharp will summon words that have failed him since that day and explain it all to her. Maybe he will explain it all to himself.
The voice on the other end of the line belongs to Viller Fous. Her only son, Jim Fous, graduated from Omaha Central, took classes at Omaha University and worked for the city's Finance Department. Then he got drafted.
He was going to do something big, everyone agreed.
“Hello?” she asks again.
John Sharp's greeting catches in his throat. He stands in his kitchen in Long Island, and he wants to tell her what happened on May 14, 1968.
He wants to tell her that Jim Fous did something so big that every time he tries to wrap his arms around the act, it floats away like an oversized parade balloon.
He can't. The words float away, too.
The only thing that an Omaha mother hears on this Christmas Day 1973 is the sound of a New York police officer sobbing.
Sharp sizes up Pvt. Fous quickly because there isn't time to play Twenty Questions.
Fous is skinny, maybe too skinny, but the first day he's with the company he proves strong enough to carry the standard-issue gear and weapon that they all must lug through the rice paddies.
He has that flat, nasally Midwestern voice.
He listens when you talk to him. He gets it the first time when you tell him that the secret to healthy feet is to throw away your Army wool socks; otherwise, the water will pool in the socks and you will have jungle rot in a week.
He gets it when Sharp teaches him how to be the lookout on the night of May 14: Use all your senses, kid. And for God's sake, wake me up if you have so much as a bad thought.
He seems like a good kid, Sharp decides, and this is no idle observation.
“You had to integrate the new guys into the unit fast. You had to figure out who was an asset and who was a liability. And you had to do that to keep yourself alive, and to keep them alive, too.”
Sharp has been here in the Mekong Delta for eight months. For eight months his 50-man company has gone on five-day missions that essentially boil down to a single objective: “Find Charlie and kill them.” The men take a single day off. And then they go out again.
During the rainy season, Sharp has marched through ground so soggy that it sucks at his boots and pulls him hip-deep into the muck.
He has slogged through rice paddies buried under 3 feet of water — better to walk in the rice paddy than on top of the dike, where the Viet Cong had likely planted mines.
His face and arms have been cut to shreds by the razor-sharp leaves of the nipa palm trees that grow all over the Delta.
He has slept in a tree to avoid the rising river. He has slept on the ground and learned to wake up in an eye blink because the Viet Cong like to attack at 4 a.m.
He has already faced the snipers that shoot at them with old German rifles from 1,000 feet, and the ambushes where the Viet Cong suddenly appear with machine guns and the dreaded grenades. He has already seen and done several-dozen things that he will not forget.
But Fous has been in Vietnam all of two weeks, filling out forms and being transported from spot to spot when he joins Sharp's company on May 12.
On May 13, the company leaves camp and trudges into the Delta. On May 14, the soldiers don't find the fight they are looking for. As darkness closes in, they make a perimeter in a small clearing protected by two water-filled ditches.
Four soldiers — Sharp, Fous, another veteran and another rookie — set up camp.
Sharp teaches Fous how to pull lookout duty. He tells him to take first shift — the veterans will take the shifts closer to dawn, when the Viet Cong are more likely to attack.
And then John Sharp goes to sleep.
Screaming. Gunfire. John Sharp blinks awake.
He sees Jim Fous firing his gun straight ahead. He sees what Fous sees — a Viet Cong soldier sprinting from left to right, dodging bullets.
And then he hears Jim Fous yell it, as loud and as clear as the drill instructors back at basic training:
John Sharp dives into the dirt. So do the other veteran and the other rookie. This is their training. This is instinct.
Except Fous sees the grenade thrown. He sees it roll up right next to him. He sees it stop in a deadly spot: mere feet from the other three soldiers.
Fous can jump over the lip of their little four-man camp and into the water-filled ditch. He can protect himself and leave the rest to fate.
Sharp hears the grenade go off — close, way too close — and braces for impact. Then he unsqueezes his eyes and realizes he doesn't have a scratch on him.
Pvt. James Fous, on his very first mission in Vietnam, made the choice that will ripple for generations. He made it as swiftly as a snap of his fingers. He dove toward the grenade, grabbed it with both hands like a child grabs a tiny balloon and clutched it to his chest.
John Sharp lies in the muck in the Mekong Delta and realizes the thing that he will try to understand until the day he dies:
A man he doesn't know has jumped onto a grenade to save his life.
Maybe on Christmas Day 1973 Vidder Fous can sense this through the phone line, through the sobs.
And maybe it just pains her to hear a young stranger cry. She is a mother, after all, a mother to a son who would be just about John Sharp's age had he lived.
We cannot know what Viller Fous thought that day — she died of cancer long ago.
But we do know what she did that day, because John Sharp remembers it like it happened just now.
She begins to talk softly to the crying young police officer calling from Long Island.
She begins to soothe him, tell him everything is OK.
She begins to urge him on as he slowly catches his breath and regains his voice and struggles to do what he set out to do.
Thank you, he says.
No, no, she says. Thank you. I am so glad you called. Would you like to talk again?
On April 7, 1970, Viller Fous accepted a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military honor, from President Richard Nixon at a private White House ceremony. She accepted it on behalf of her son, James.
On Long Island, John Sharp decides to honor Jim in his own way. He calls Viller on the Christmas morning of 1974, and the next Christmas, and the next.
He calls her on that day in 1975 when he arrives home from the hospital. Mrs. Fous, it's a girl, he says.
And he calls her again in 1978, when his son was born.
His name is Morgan, he says into the phone. Morgan James Sharp.
John Sharp is retired now. He rose to precinct commander before he handed in his badge.
He has raised two kids with his wife, Janet.
Amanda is a teacher who helps children. Morgan James owns a string of restaurants. His dad watches how well he treats employees and customers, and if pride were helium, he would drift into the Long Island sky.
Some days when he is alone, John Sharp thinks about that night in the Mekong Delta, and the thought is still too big. It still floats away.
And some days are like this one three years ago, when John Sharp again stands inside a hospital.
They hand him his first granddaughter, Jillian. And as John Sharp holds her, the thing that floats becomes tethered. For a moment, he can wrap his arms around it. For a moment he understands.
Thank you, he whispers. Thank you.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1064, firstname.lastname@example.org
Viller Fous was the mother of Jim Fous. Her name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.