05/29/10 — Hearts not healed

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Hearts not healed

By Michael Betts
Published in News on May 29, 2010 10:34 PM

News-Argus Video Report

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Leerene Lane looks at a picture of her son, Bobby, who was killed in 1968 while serving as a Marine Corps machine-gunner in Vietnam. Bobby will be honored Monday during the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition’s Memorial Day service at Wayne Community College.

"Hey Jr. How's it going my man? I hope the draft has got off your back, but I sort of doubt it. I really feel sorry for you when they get you."

John Lane always knew his brother, Bobby, had it rough in Vietnam.

But he never let on, at least not to his mother, Leerene -- not after a pair of Marines delivered news that Bobby had been killed in action; not when a flag-draped casket made its way from a train station in Selma to the family's Goldsboro home.

"She never knew that he was in any danger, but the letters I got from him were more clear," John said. "It was obvious he was in combat, but he would always say, 'You don't tell my mama what I've told you.'"

The boys' younger brother, Ricky, got the same instructions.

So when he and John recently shared the experience of watching Bobby leave for Vietnam -- and how it felt to see his body escorted to Willowdale Cemetery no more than a year later -- the mother, several times, broke down.

"This, right here, is the most I've ever told her," John said, watching Leerene wipe tears from her eyes. "He never wanted her to know what he was going through."

More than 40 years after his death, Bobby's family still feels the loss -- when they look at a folded flag displayed over Leerene's fireplace; when John picks up one of dozens of letters written toward the end of his brother's life and begins to read.

"He was a good boy, such a good boy," John said. "The best youngin she ever had."

"Boy it's really lonesome up here in the mountains. I hated to leave home so bad."

Bobby will always be remembered as a "homebody."

So when his country came calling in 1967, he looked for ways to avoid the draft without being considered a "draft dodger."

"He did not want to become or be called a 'draft dodger,'" John said. "But he didn't want to join the Army."

Instead, Bobby thought, he would apply to each of the other branches of the Armed Forces -- to serve, on his own terms, by enlisting, his brother said.

But that didn't make going to Parris Island -- knowing that he, one day, would leave on a ship bound for Vietnam -- any easier.

"We went down there to see him and that was just about enough to kill you," Leerene said. "He cried and cried."

And at the end of the leave he was granted upon completion of boot camp, his emotions, again, got the best of him.

"We all went to the airport right here in Wayne County and the last thing I remember thinking was, 'Why is Mama crying so bad?'" Ricky said. "I thought, 'It wasn't like he is going to die or nothing.' But after that, he never came home."

That flight took Bobby to Camp Pendleton, Calif., for training meant to serve him well in the jungle.

And on Nov. 7, 1967, his tour officially began.

"It's rough, believe me."

Bobby started sending letters home immediately -- "as many as he could find time to write," his family said.

"I have still got 33, so imagine how many he sent her," John said, pointing to his mother. "We got those letters all the time, sometimes, in a big stack."

But what he chose to share was different depending on whom the correspondence was meant for.

To Leerene, he wrote of a boring time -- one that saw no real action or threat to speak of.

John and Ricky, however, heard of the constant blisters that came with marching everywhere.

And they were told, "What some of the Vietnamese were doing to our soldiers -- why our guys over there hated them so much," John said.

"We all talked behind Mama's back about it, comparing the letters, you know?" Ricky said. "It didn't sound good. We were a little bit scared for him."

And Bobby was scared for his brothers, too -- knowing all too well what they would face if the draft came calling for them.

"If I was killed or something, you might not have to ever go (to Vietnam). It's really something to think about," he once wrote to John. "I got Mom's letter today. It made me feel so good I cried. I couldn't help it. You'll know, one day, how I feel I guess."

"I miss you all so much. I guess I'll always remember the day I left. I cried all the way here. I just can't stand to see Mama that way."

Bobby never knew that would be the last time he would see Leerene's face.

And despite their inside information on what was transpiring in the jungle, John and Ricky were shocked when two sharply dressed Marines delivered the news of their brother's death.

"I can remember them coming to the front door. I detected something as soon as I looked at them," Ricky said. "That's when it was told."

At the time, John was out of town.

"They stopped me on the street in High Point and told me to come home," he said. "I had a suspicion as to why because they wouldn't tell me."

But the pain didn't start to sink in right away -- not when he reached his mother's side; not until he first looked upon the flag-draped casket carrying a young man who "had been like a father figure to me since after my parents separated."

"You can look at it on TV for a long time, but it's real when ... you go to that train station and see that flag-covered coffin, and you know it's your brother," John said.

Ricky agreed.

"The worst thing was when they brought that casket to our house. That was tough," he added. "It was a terrible feeling when we put that casket through the window, but it was a tear-jerker in Selma because we had to sit there and wait for the train to bring him home, and you sit there and really realize."

"Take care of Mama for me and don't worry about me, OK? Love forever and always."

It has been more than 42 years since that fateful knock fell on the Lanes' door.

And ever since Bobby died in South Vietnam's Quang Tri Province, those who loved him so well have kept him in their thoughts and prayers.

So when they heard that the county Veterans and Patriots Coalition would be honoring their beloved at its annual Memorial Day service, they found peace in knowing that those outside their family would remember, too.

"I personally think he was a hero," Ricky said. "People ought to know that when you fight for your country and die for your country, you're a hero."

John agreed.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for the Armed Forces. If something like (losing a brother to war) doesn't bring you closer to your country, I don't know what does," he said. "So what I would want people to remember is that (Memorial Day) is not just a holiday. It's a holiday with tremendous meaning.

"What I hope people get out of (Monday's 11 a.m. service at Wayne Community College) is that a lot of people made a lot of sacrifices ... to protect our rights and freedoms."