The last Monday of May (May 25, 2009) is set aside to commemorate U.S. men and women who died while in military service. The gravestones at many cemeteries will be graced by U.S. flags placed there by family members and volunteers.
Although I like to think of my blog as a humorous and entertaining glimpse of my life, today I want to give you a piece out of my past, and I want you to be able to see Memorial Day not as parades, picnics and flags but instead as people, families, and children, both here and gone.
HBO recently showed a special program called "Taking Chance", which depicts the Military Escort Duty of a Marine Officer, based on a true account. In case you aren't aware, a Military Escort accompanies the body of any serviceman killed in duty overseas, all the way from arrival in the United States to the burial/final service where the Military Escort presents to the family the American flag used to cover the coffin. Military Escort duty isn't assigned, Military Escorts volunteer for the duty. In January of 1968 I volunteered for service in Vietnam. And I volunteered for Military Escort Duty.
I watched the program "Taking Chance" and went to tell Susan.
Susan: I remember you did Escort Duty when we were stationed in California. Do you remember anything about it?
Me: (without thinking) His name was Brown and I took him home to a little town in Illinois.
Susan: You were in the service for 5 years and up until now the only name you can remember from that whole time was your roommate in Vietnam. But now, all of the sudden, you can remember the name of the man you did Escort Duty for?
Susan did internet research and found a U.S. Air Force Officer named Brown who died in 1968 and had an Illinois hometown. More research pulled up a post from a David Brown, asking for information about his father, Barry Lynn Brown. Was it the same person? Susan did more internet research, made many phone calls to funeral homes and VFW centers where finally she talked to a very helpful veteran, Bruce McMillan. He offered to go to his local library and do more research for her and was able to mail her a copy of the local May 6, 1968, newspaper with the large headline "...Killed in Vietnam".
I emailed David telling him I didn't know his father but that I had served as Military Escort at his father's funeral. As a result of remembering his father's name, Susan's research, and Bruce's help, I've now been able to communicate with Barry Lynn Brown's sons, David and Kent; his widow, Patty; and his grandson, Connor, who never knew his grandfather but wants to go into the Air Force. They have been incredibly generous in their appreciation of what I did for them, yet they were the ones who made the ultimate American wartime sacrifice.
What did I do for them?
When my name came up to the top of the volunteer Military Escort Duty list I got a phone call telling me that within 12 hours a flight would be arriving from Vietnam and I was to meet it to begin Escort Duty. Not until I showed up did I find out where I was going and who I was escorting. I did my best to preserve the dignity, honor and respect Barry Lynn Brown deserved. I presented the folded American flag from his coffin to his widow, "from a grateful nation".
I can think of no greater honor I could have had than the privilege of escorting the body of an American serviceman, killed in action, home to his family.
Captain Barry Lynn Brown, Killed in Action, Vietnam, May 5, 1968
On Memorial Day, when most people think of small American flags placed on gravestones, think back to May 1968 and visualize a very young widow and her two sons, ages 1½ and 2½ years old, being handed a carefully folded flag by a very solemn young man.
Think also of the family of James Clifford McKittrick. They are still waiting for him to come home. I'm still waiting to send them my POW-MIA bracelet.
Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, Washington, DC, April 2009