Forty-five years ago this month the University of Nevada, Reno lost one of its most illustrious alumni to the Vietnam Conflict.
"My brother was the big man on campus both in stature and personality," said Sandi McNamara, who spoke fondly of her brother, George Merritt Wisham Jr. when interviewed about both him and the award memorializing his name.
When Wisham attended the University of Nevada from 1964-1967, he was well liked by everyone who knew him, and he knew a lot of people. His college roommate and friend remembered him on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, writing, "George was a great tennis player, had a winning laugh, a good sense of humor. George was a good friend, and a fine officer." When the news of his death in Vietnam on Jan. 4, 1968 reached the University, the campus closed for his memorial. He is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D. C. (panel 33E, row 44) and on the Kern County Vietnam War Memorial in California.
Second Lieutenant George Merritt Wisham Jr. was born Oct. 17, 1944 in Salinas, Calif. His father was stationed at Fort Ord at the time. From there his family moved to Bakersfield, Calif., and he graduated from Bakersfield High School in 1962. Immediately after graduation he went into the Marine Reserve Officer Training Corps. Finding that the Marines weren't for him he decided to go back to school. He attended Bakersfield Community College and in 1964 came to the University of Nevada, Reno on a tennis scholarship.
As a student at the University, Wisham liked to have fun, and his natural leadership abilities were prominent. He participated in the University of Nevada Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program and in the fall of 1966 was selected to lead the Brigade as its Commander. Outside of the Army ROTC program his larger-than-life personality shined all over campus. Sandi laughed as she reminisced of some of the practical jokes George and his friends pulled. She made it clear George was just a fun, easygoing person.
In 1967 Wisham graduated from the University and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant into the United States Army. He served as Platoon Leader with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment (Airborne), 101st Airborne Division from 1967 until his death in 1968. In December of 1967 he went to Vietnam and had been there only 23 days when he was killed while on patrol in Binh Duong on Jan. 4, 1968. He was 23 years old. His awards include the Combat Infantry Badge, Purple Heart, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Parachutist Badge, and the Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation.
His funeral was held in Bakersfield; his parents received many requests from students still at the University wanting to attend the funeral but his parents didn't want to risk their safety on the long drive.
In 1969, his family started the George Wisham Jr. Leadership and Fellowship Award for Army ROTC cadets at the University. The award is unique and arguably the most cherished in that it is the only one that is awarded strictly by their peers for outstanding leadership. Originally the award was $500; in 1973, because Wisham's father worked for Texaco they matched the amount and the award became $1,000. In 1997 Sandi increased the amount of the award to $1,500. For the recipient, the monetary award isn't as important as the meaning. Sandi has a list of all of the recipients of the award. Of note, Congressman Mark Amodei was a recipient and only one cadet has received it twice; John Toll received the award in 2004 and 2005. The recipient is not necessarily the person who has the best grades, but rather for that person who the peers would follow into battle. The recipient exemplifies leadership just as George Wisham Jr. did.
(Editor's note: Christa Harrop is a senior majoring in Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is the Army ROTC Cadet Battalion Commander and the 2012 George Wisham Jr. Leadership and Fellowship Award recipient.)