By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on November 1, 2010 1:46 PM
Members of the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition Organization are currently preparing for Goldsboro's annual Veterans Day parade. From left are Chaplain Bill Carr, Vice President Mike Burris and President Bill Graham.
Their lives would be far simpler if they had never gone to Vietnam -- if they could forget all they saw during the long months spent serving a country that, at the time, wasn't grateful for their sacrifices.
The condition each brought home from the jungle would subside -- the sleepless nights spent in solitary reflection, the fear of uncertainty, the nightmares -- gone.
They realize this.
But as you come to know three of Wayne County's most influential veterans, you will find that remembering is a choice as well as a burden -- that for Bill Graham, Mike Burris and Bill Carr, staring into the eyes of fallen comrades is the way they immortalize those heroes left behind.
So as the three, again, rally the local Veterans and Patriots Coalition to execute Goldsboro's annual Veterans Day parade, they do so, this year, by telling stories they have kept close for more than 40 years -- tales that aren't entirely their own.
In many ways, they belong to three of the young men who now keep the soldier, sailor and Marine up at night.
They belong to Dan Jenkins, Bobby Laws and Richard Strawl.
The son of a World War II veteran, Graham always knew he would one day wear his country's uniform.
"I took great pride in his service," he said. "Still do."
So after graduating from Goldsboro High School, he decided to continue the legacy of patriotism established by his father.
But someone else he loved also factored into his decision -- a boy named Dan Jenkins, who, a year earlier, had joined the Marine Corps.
"Danny was a year ahead of me in school and thought he might wait for me to graduate so we could join the Navy Seabees together. That was the idea," Graham said. "But before we could, another guy we knew convinced him to go into the Marines."
Graham, though, still intended to become a sailor.
"I was looking at possibly facing the draft ... but I didn't want to take what they wanted to give me," he said. "I was going to go after what I wanted."
So not long after receiving his diploma, Graham joined the Seabees -- knowing that before long, he would be among those deployed to Vietnam.
"You're nervous. If anybody tells you they weren't scared, they're fools," he said. "But even with that, there's this sense that comes over you. 'This is what I signed up for. This is what I've got to do. This is for my country.' And you go and do it."
The Seabees were tasked with building landing strips, highways and other infrastructure in support of the 3rd Marine Division.
"But we were still subject to ground attack," Graham said. "Sniper fire and all."
And he was still affected by all he witnessed during his eight months at war.
"It's gets tricky at that point, because you live your life and you try to live it the best you can by putting those things aside and not dwelling on them," Graham said. "If you dwell on them, if you live them every day, you're a mess. You can't cope."
Still, one memory isn't so easy to set aside -- the one that, even today, keeps the sailor awake until he can no longer hold his eyes open.
And ironically, it didn't even unfold while Graham was in combat.
"I was still in training when I got the news. I think some of the guys came and told me I needed to call home right away," he said.
Jenkins had been killed in Vietnam.
"Danny was more than a best bud. He was a part of the family," Graham said. "So after those two Marines showed up and delivered the news, 'Ma Jenkins' ... told them they had to go to my house to tell my parents. ... It was devastating."
And more than 40 years later, it still is.
Unlike Graham, Burris didn't choose to serve.
"After 14 years of school, I just needed a break, but it was during Vietnam and that was not a good time to take a break from school," he said. "It wasn't two weeks later that I got my notice in the mail. It said, 'Uncle Sam wants you.'
"Now I could have gone back to school and gotten a deferment, but I said, 'No. Let me go ahead and do my duty for my country.'"
And a few weeks later, he reported to Army Fort Polk, La., for basic training -- knowing all the while "I'm on my way to Vietnam."
It was November 1967 by the time the newly certified medic arrived there.
"When we landed and departed the plane, we looked over at the plane next to us and they were loading body bags onto it," Burris said. "That's when it all sank in."
But that image is not the one the solider carries with him after all these years -- nor is the moment he was shot and removed from combat with an injury that later earned him the Purple Heart.
"I always go back to Bobby Laws," he said, looking down. "It was an ambush."
Their unit pinned down, Burris and his men called in an air strike that was to come courtesy of South Vietnamese pilots.
"But they missed their targets and hit us," he said.
So without hesitation, the 18-year-old medic took action.
And that's when it happened.
"I had just carried our commander back to the rear with a leg wound and was getting ready to walk back in. All of a sudden, here comes Bobby running at us," Burris said, closing his eyes and placing a hand on his head before continuing. "Everything was burnt off him -- everything. I didn't think he was going to make it."
Laws died shortly after being evacuated out of that firefight.
But the moment he was loaded onto that transport was not the last time Burris saw his face.
The young man has stayed with the soldier ever since.
"You try not to dwell on the fact that you were there and what you saw -- all the mayhem," Burris said. "But it's hard. It's real hard.
Carr was so anxious to serve that he lied about his age to get into the Marines long before his 18th birthday.
And having spent several months stationed along the Demilitarized Zone, he, too, has experienced his share of tragedy.
But he doesn't dwell on the day he was shot or the fact that the byproducts of his service keep him up most nights.
Instead, he, like Graham and Burris, focuses his waning energy on the memory of a young man cut down before his prime.
Richard Strawl, Carr said, could have left the Corps -- and Vietnam.
"But he extended, mainly, because of me," he said. "I needed a radio operator, and he was the best."
So the young man re-enlisted on the battlefield -- vowing to Carr that one day, he would be an exemplary Marine.
"No more than six days later, we were ambushed ... and Richard, he charged a damn machine gun with a 70-pound radio on his back and a .45-caliber pistol," Carr said. "He knew we had to take out that gun. He was trying to save us. He was all Marine."
The veteran can still see the young man fall.
And he can feel the boy's parents' embrace -- thanking him for looking after their son during his final days.
"I wanted them to know my reasoning for Richard extending. I told them every detail," Carr said. "That kid still means the world to me to this day. It's like he's still here."
While they come from different places, the solider, sailor and Marine share a bond most who haven't served can't comprehend.
And even though they will forever live with a common condition brought back from Vietnam, knowing there are others out there with similar stories helps.
And so does seeing those for whom they sacrificed join them during events like Nov. 11's parade.
The crowds are a reminder, they said, that Dan Jenkins, Bobby Laws and Richard Strawl didn't die in vain -- that the nation they died defending hasn't forgotten about freedom's price tag.
"I hope people come out an honor them," Burris said. "That's what we'll be doing."
"Amen," Carr added. "It's not about us. It's about everyone who has sacrificed."
And then there was Graham, who, with emotion starting to show on his face, talked about just what that seemingly simple parade means to him.
"You have a lot of pride when you put a program like this together and you see all the bands, all the vehicles, all the Cub Scouts," he said. "You take a lot of pride in seeing those who come out in support of the veterans. They make you feel good.
"But when the organizations of veterans come through -- and your active duty military -- then your pride really swells up and you anticipate standing on the platform just so you can snap to, just so you can salute. Those are the heroes. Those are the guys we serve now."