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This Memorial Day, Remember The Fallen, Like This Farm Boy From North Carolina

Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, don’t just grill and chill. Reflect on those who died in service of our country and honor their memory.


As a combat veteran, I always feel a bit awkward when someone wishes me “Happy Memorial Day.” Oftentimes, I do not correct them because I know they mean well. The misplaced gratitude stems from a misunderstanding of what Memorial Day is all about.

The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember and honor our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have been killed in action serving this country and its people. It is a time for somber reflection, not joy.

One of the things that I would ask you to reflect upon this Memorial Day is the sacrifice made by those whom we honor. I don’t mean just to take a few minutes to acknowledge that they died too young, then return to your grilling, water skiing, partying, or whatever. Dig deeper.

Here is a suggestion that everyone can do: Set aside 30 minutes to visit the Wall of Faces. It includes photos and memorials of all those killed in Vietnam. Pick a date — perhaps your birthday, wedding anniversary, or college graduation. Then look at the men who died on that date throughout the years of the Vietnam War.

See their photos. Read the comments by family, friends, and comrades. Then reflect on the things they forfeited. Almost all of them would now be in their 70s or 80s. They missed out on 50 to 60 years worth of joy and laughter, sorrow and tears, everything that makes up a life.

You may find that you want to spend more than a half hour there. You may even find yourself going back for subsequent visits on later days. I hope so.

Here is a short sketch about one such soldier whose name is carved on the Wall.

Garney Burleson was a farm boy from North Carolina. He is not famous. You will not read about him anywhere other than here. He was a member of the elite aero-rifle platoon of B Troop, 1/9 Cavalry, of the famed 1st Cavalry Division, also known as the “Bravo Blues.”

Garney was killed in action on January 28, 1971, in Binh Tuy Province, Vietnam. He was only 20 years old.

Garney is buried in the cemetery of a small country church outside of Asheville, N.C. No immediate family members are left to remember him today. No parents. No siblings. He never had any children.

At the time of his death, Garney had been in Vietnam for about three months. He was already serving under his second platoon leader, his first having been medically evacuated after being wounded.

Garney kept a cool head under fire. On one occasion, he was lying on the ground behind a tree during a firefight. Keeping his body behind the tree, he held his rifle around it and fired at the North Vietnamese, who were only a few yards away.

An enemy soldier returned fire, hitting Garney’s exposed rifle. The bullet hit the front sight-blade of his M-16 then travelled all the way down the length of his rifle to take out the rear sight also. Obviously, if Garney had been looking through the sights, the bullet would have pierced his head. Unperturbed, Garney held up his damaged but still-operable rifle for a nearby soldier to see, smiled, and calmly said, “They’re shooting pretty close today, aren’t they.”

Garney’s last platoon leader, known as “Blue” for his radio call sign, was scant feet away from Garney when he was killed. Blue carried Garney’s body to an evacuation helicopter that was able to descend through a small opening in the trees. On Memorial Day 2018, that platoon leader made the trip from Knoxville, Tennessee, to his fallen soldier’s gravesite. 

The platoon leader was a bit distressed at what he found at the church and cemetery. He had thought he might stumble upon a memorial service held by the church, or at least other mourners at the cemetery. That was not to be. He was alone.

Garney’s grave was not particularly well-tended. Although several others were buried there who could be identified as veterans from their headstones, the church had not made an effort to honor them on Memorial Day, neglecting even to place a small American flag on their gravesites.

The platoon leader went to a nearby store to purchase a small American flag and some flowers. He then returned and placed them on Garney’s grave. He then penned a hasty note to his former soldier, encased it in a protective plastic bag, left it at the tombstone, and held it down with a small stone. He could only hope that by virtue of God’s grace, Garney would know what it said and that he was not forgotten.

Please join me on Memorial Day in remembering Garney Burleson, and all the other members of our armed forces who perished in the service of our nation, whose sacrifice we remember and honor this Memorial Day.

This is the note the platoon leader left for Garney.

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