'I'm doing it for Don'
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 27, 2012 1:50 AM
Becky Harrell places a flag on a grave Saturday morning at Wayne Memorial Park -- just like she and her husband, Don, did together every year until this one.
Becky Harrell, this year's Gold Star wife, sits holding the flag that honors her late husband, Don Harrell Jr., while sitting next to the wreath that was placed on his grave. Harrell died from complications of Agent Orange exposure which he encountered during his service in the Vietnam War.
This undated photo shows Don Harrell in Vietnam.
Their uniforms were almost frightening -- the young sailors who gathered alongside one of the graves nestled inside Wayne Memorial Park last June.
Those finely pressed jackets and pants meant that Don Harrell was really gone -- that a battle that began in the jungles of Vietnam was finally over; that his wife, Becky, would never again take his hand.
"When I drove up and I saw those guys in the Navy uniforms, I was like, 'I don't know if I can handle this,'" she said. "It was really, really hard."
But when, nearly a year later, the widow, again, approached her late husband's final resting place, she kept her composure.
She remained strong ... for him.
"This weekend, we would not have been at the lake. We would have been here," Becky said. "We have always gone and helped put flags out."
Don had no idea that he started dying in the jungle -- that he would ultimately succumb to the same war that claimed so many of his friends and comrades right before his very eyes.
He had no way of knowing that he had been exposed to Agent Orange -- that by his early 60s, he would be confined to a wheelchair; that he would be forced to battle several ailments at once.
But a few years after he and Becky were married, his heart grew weak.
"Originally, they did not have heart disease as one of the things caused by Agent Orange," Becky said. "But they finally came out and said that it was."
And years later, when was diagnosed with diabetes, it became clear that his time in Vietnam had left a lasting impact on his body.
"If he had lived, he would have had to have both legs amputated," Becky said. "The VA had done everything they could and his legs were just getting worse and worse."
It was late winter 1983 and Becky was working at the American Legion.
Don was a regular -- and after meeting the woman who worked behind the bar, decided to ask her out.
It didn't take long for the two to realize that they had made a special connection.
"We were best friends," Becky said.
Less than a year later, they were married.
But it took Becky nearly two decades to learn the horrific details of her husband's service -- that the things he had seen in Vietnam haunted him every day.
"He had the nightmares and he told the psychiatrist, 'I don't go to funerals. I don't even like driving by funeral homes,'" she said. "He was security police in Vietnam, so part of his job was when they would have these bombings, he would walk around and pick up body parts."
And she would come to find that Don's post-traumatic stress disorder was not the only ailment a doctor would diagnose decades after he turned in his gun.
"Everything he had just filled his body up with poison," Becky said. "The poisons in his body were just overwhelming."
He didn't fall on the battlefield, but members of the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition still consider Don a combat casualty.
And they see Becky as a beacon of strength -- one of the area's most exemplary Gold Star wives.
So they called her a few months ago, hoping she would agree to lead the wreath-laying ceremony at their annual Memorial Day service.
"At first, I said, 'No. I can't do that,'" Becky said. "I just didn't think I could handle it."
But when a second phone call came, she decided, like she did at her husband's graveside, to be strong ... for him.
"I'm doing it for Don," Becky said. "You know, watching somebody you love so much suffer, it's hard. And doing this, bringing it all back, it's real hard. But we always went to the service on Monday. So I'm doing it for him."