Author: Rocky Rutherford
Every year I attend services at the North Carolina Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Park out on Highway I85, hoping I'll hear about those GIs engraved on its memorial wall that stands sentinel over this holy ground. Though little is said about the over 1600 Tar Heels killed or missing in that undeclared war, I am humbled, honored, and thankful to be in their spiritual presence.
Again I came away disappointed. To fight it off and not demean the spirit of the day, I went to The Wall to silently honor those GIs from North Carolina who died in what was called a "conflict." I'll always look at it as a war, complete with its horrors, instant death, and wasted lives. I was spending time with Chief Warrant Officer Van Dwain Sherrill from Thomasville who was killed in action "from an incident on 23 October 1965 while performing the duty of helicopter aircraft commander, at an unknown province near Duc Hoa, South Vietnam."
"Hey, GI," a slim man in a cowboy hat whispered in my ear, "Like to join us?" A gaggle of men huddled in front of The Wall. Some wore the familiar Vietnam Veteran baseball cap, some had beards, some bandanas around bushy heads. Their faces were GI. I joined them. The cowboy spoke to a few other men along The Wall then returned to the group, stationing himself out front like a platoon leader.
"My name is McQueen Hamilton Dillahey," he said, addressing us. "Like ya'll I came here to hear about those GIs." He pointed to The Wall then turned back to us. "It would be an honor to lead you in a memorial for them. So I thought I'd just ask you all to join me." He looked back over his shoulder. "Now, just to let you know I ain't a threat to you or am trying to hustle you...again...I want you to know I went in the Army a second lieutenant and came out a second lieutenant. That aught to tell you I ain't much of a threat to anybody." We laughed, not loud, just enough to let each other know we were not being hustled by an officer and gentleman.
"Fall in," McQueen snapped. This brought back boot camp memories on Tank Hill at Fort Jackson and like a good recruit I fell in with the others.
We giggled like recruits but no one objected, some even tried a dress right dress. "See there," McQueen joked, "you never forget." The smile from his heart touched ours. We liked him. He was one of us. Staying a second looie your whole tour told us he wasn't a ring knocking John Wayne hero hoping some day to make general at our expense. And was here today, 40 some years later, trying to hustle us again. We were not "his brave men," we were men doing a job that had to be done. He was not a "sir," to be respected because of the butter bar on his shoulder, he was our leader because he was one of us. He was L. T.
"It would be an honor and a privilege to lead you in memorializing them." He turned toward The Wall, caught his breath, pressing the fingers of his right hand against his eyes.
A big, bandana wearing Marine Gunny Sergeant stepped from the ranks and wrapped a big Semper Fi tatooed arm around McQueen's shoulder.
He spoke into the once second looie's ear then pulled his head to his. Embracing they cried. Then the Gunny, in traditional Marine fashion, exploded.
"Now, listen up, here's what we gonna do. This man had the balls to come here and do something we've all wanted for years. We want our fallen honored and that's just what we're gonna git. This is the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial and this day is for them. To do it we gotta speak out...loud and clear. Each of us in his own way. Do it for yourselves, do it for our country, and do it for them." He walked to The Wall and searched out a name. With tears tracing the crevices of his worn face yet in strong voice he told of a fire fight in the hills near Khe Sanh and how a young Tar Heel Marine saved his platoon by throwing himself on an explosive device. When he finished he saluted The Wall, did a quick and militarily perfect about face, saluted Lieutenant Dillahey, yelled "Next, front and center," then stepped sharply back into formation.
And so it started. One by one without being urged they moved out smartly to The Wall and related their own personal stories of GIs who died for the United States of America. Some they knew, some , their buddies, some nameless. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard. Blacks, whites, reds, yellows. All GI's. All bleeding red for our country...the United States of America.
A little grandfatherly fellow, quiet in speech and manner, an ex-Army Spec 4 from Archdale told of being torn between his love for the Vietnamese people and his duty as an infantry grunt in the Big Red One. "I didn't want to kill them or destroy their homes but I followed orders just like most GIs do. I'm not sorry for my service but I am sorry so many innocent people had to die. But what has hurt me more is knowing my friends and fellow soldiers gave their lives so I can be here this day in this holy place." He turned to The Wall and saluted and we joined him. He stepped to L. T. and said " Sir, I'll never forget what you did this day. I've come a long way but today, thanks to you, I am free." He saluted and stepped back into place.
As I listened I tried to put some kind of order to what I was to say when it came my turn. I am not sophisticated, outgoing, I am country, uneducated in rhetoric and speechmaking. But I wanted to do this right. After all the years of denial I wanted and ached for the respect due those GIs. For the first time since I was a kid at First Baptist Church, Thomasville, I asked God for help. Then I remembered the poem folded away in my pocket, the one I wanted to dedicate to all the GIs on The Wall.
"Next," the Gunny snapped, "front and center." I literally double timed it to The Wall with rousing applause from the vets. My mind and heart went back over forty years and again that unexplainable bond that holds GIs together soothed me.: I was one of them then, am now, and will always be.
I went straight to, for I had been there many times before, CWO Vann Dwayne Sherrill and placed a finger on his brick.
"CWO Van Dwayne Sherrill, born Thomasville, North Carolina, 21 August 1934 died 23 October 1965, Republic of South Vietnam. We grew up in Thomasville. I didn't know him well but heard a lot about him. He was the first left handed catcher at Thomasville High School to be All State. He was an outstanding literary student. He taught me many things about soldiering but what I remember most is what he said about living. 'Live for what you believe in for life is a moveable feast." I didn't understand that back then but I've learned its meaning over the years." I got a little choked up here so I swallowed hard. "I think what CWO Sherrill meant was if you are going to soldier, do it with all your heart, give it all you got, and you will be satisfied with a soldier's life. He was right then, he's right now. And there's no doubt in my mind he lived a beautiful life and gave it willingly for his country." I fumbled out my poem.
"I'd like to read this for CWO Sherrill and all GI's on The Wall and their families. It's by Emily Dickinson:
They perished in the seamless grass,-
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face."
I saluted The Wall and when I turned around that gaggle of vets stood at attention rendering salutes. Like a good soldier I stopped dead and returned the salute as a weariness lifted from me and faded way up into the Carolina blue. And I thought of Doctor King's words free, free at last, God Almighty, free at last.
After a bunch of GI war stories, handshakes and hugs, we broke up and each faded into his own world. I looked for Lt Dillahey to thank him for bringing us together, for making this moveable feast happen. The man in the cowboy hat with a smile big as his heart was gone. Disappeared. I stayed and talked to CWO Sherrill a while then remembering what he said about life being a feast I headed on back to Silver Valley to enjoy the life he gave me by giving his.
Post Script. Please join us again this Memorial Day at The Wall.