We have a responsibility to thank people like Tom Doody
By Joe Dillsaver
“I’m going home.” — McMurphy in the last episode of ”China Beach.”
Every soldier gauges his time by when he will be going home. Going home can be a physical or a mental journey. Some veterans can never fully complete their journeys.
On July 6, 1991, I stood at the top of a hill on the west side of a Grand Junction cemetery. The 98-degree temperature didn’t faze me as I searched for a specific grave. It was late Saturday afternoon and there was no one to assist me. I didn’t even know if I was in the right place.
The journey that led me to Grand Junction had begun 22 years earlier at Fort Polk, La. That was the day I began basic training. I was 24 years old when I was drafted out of my PhD program at the University of Missouri. It came as quite a shock when a 19 year-old drill sergeant told our company he was going to make men out of us.
Most in the company wanted to be helicopter pilots. I was not one of them. The platoons were assigned alphabetically and that is how I met Tom Doody.
Tom’s bunk was next to mine and we soon became good friends. He had joined the Army to become a pilot. While we didn’t have much free time, Tom and I spent it together.
Tom was a Catholic and I a Protestant, so on Sunday mornings, I went to mass with him and he attended Protestant services with me. That way we stayed out of the company longer. Toward the end of basic training, we even had the guts to sneak out and get a pizza.
At the end of basic training, I knew I would never see many of my friends again. I knew many of these men would end up in Vietnam. During the final week of basic training, I hurt my shoulder. As a result, I missed telling Tom and the others goodbye.
My injury was not enough to get me out of the service. I ended up a personnel management specialist at William Beaumont Hospital in El Paso, Texas.
I often thought of Tom and wondered if he had made it through flight school. Vietnam seemed a long way off. But it was very real when I received orders to go there. At the last minute, it didn’t happen because of a project I was working on. But the war was close to home for someone stationed at a militaryhospital.
Each week, the Army Times published a list of casualties. In April 1970, the name of a soldier I had gone through basic training with appeared. Later, J.D. Starrett from my hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., was there. I thought of his young widow and her loss.
In March of 1971, Tom Doody’s name appeared. That evening I wrote:
“We are taught man is the most intelligent animal on Earth,
We are also taught man’s mind allows him to make the greatest of decisions,
But why is Tom Doody lost somewhere in the jungles of Laos?”
Tom’s death hit me like a two-by-four between my eyes. I don’t understand why his death was more devastating to me than J.D.‘s or the two guys whose bunks had been next to me. But, from the moment I read he had been killed, I swore I would travel to Grand Junction to say goodbye.
Soon after Tom’s death, I finished my two years of military service and returned to graduate school. I finished my PhD, began a career and I now have a great family.
I didn’t find Tom’s grave on my first visit to Grand Junction in 1991. I couldn’t hold back the tears because of my inability to bring my journey to a close. That day I swore I would return to Grand Junction to fulfill my promise.
In the intervening years, I thought of Tom once in a while. I visited the Vietnam Memorial wall a couple of times as it moved around the country. Seeing his name brought memories, but not closure.
In June of 2006, I watched a program about the attacks into Laos by U.S. forces. I thought of Tom again and wondered if that was when he was killed. I did an Internet search and got a hit concerning the Western Slope Memorial in Fruita. I contacted the email listed and received a reply from Tom’s brother, Jim. He told me he would be happy to show me Tom’s grave.
Several more years passed before I finally got back to Grand Junction. Jim was out of town when I arrived, but he gave me specific directions to Tom’s grave.
Last July 24, I pulled into Grand Junction with anticipation and apprehension. It had been 39 years since I promised to visit his grave. As I stopped the car, my wife knew I needed to be alone, so she stayed inside. My knees almost buckled as I began to search.
I couldn’t find the grave. Jackie saw what was happening and hurried to look elsewhere. Soon, she yelled, pointed at a large slab and turned back.
Then I was there.
As I looked at Tom’s grave, I expected an explosion of emotions but they didn’t come. My eyes became damp, but tears didn’t flow like they had so many times before. I simply said, “Thanks, Tom,” and left.
My search is over and my promise kept.
Throughout my search, I thought this was about my journey only. Now I know better. I want to plead for all those veterans who have not been as lucky as I have been. More and more, I hear about men and women who try their best but cannot reach closure. This country must do more for them.
World War II veterans are dying at a rate of a thousand every day. Do we have enough programs to medically care for them so they can die with dignity? Korean heroes aren’t far behind.
It’s been four decades since Vietnam, when our country lost people like Tom and J.D. Who is going to care for my generation of veterans?
Now we hear about the devastating injuries to our latest veterans and how our governmental structure is inadequate. Our active-duty forces are faring little better. I know one young man who was transferred to a new assignment, bought a house and is now being transferred again. His family is being crushed financially because he must sell his home short. The politicians don’t seem to care about these problems.
Perhaps it is time for a modest solution for our veterans. Maybe there should be a small national tax that is earmarked only for veterans’ benefits. How can anyone object to such a designation?
I believe it’s time for Americans to make sure as many veterans as possible complete their personal journeys. I want to hear my fellow veterans be proud of what the country they served is doing for them, and to be able to say to their fallen comrades, “Thanks, Tom.”
Joe Dillsaver is a professor emeritus of criminal justice at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. He is a disabled veteran and a retired Air Force officer.