Honoring the youngest fallen
By Brandon Davis
Published in News on January 10, 2017 10:03 AM
Phil Kastner and producer Rodney Bryant talk before filming at the grave of Dan Bullock Friday at Elmwood Cemetery. Defense News films is producing a documentary about Bullock, who was the youngest soldier to die in the Vietnam War.
Kastner replaces flags on the headstone of Dan Bullock at Elmwood Cemetery Friday.
Producer Rodney Bryant and multimedia journalist Daniel Woolfolk discuss how to set up a shot at the Wayne County Public Library Friday as they prepare to interview Phil Kastner for a series for Defense News.
Phil Kastner knelt at the creek beside Elmwood Cemetery.
Something beneath the fallen leaves and underbrush had caught his eye.
Kastner stood, holding in his hands two tarnished American flags.
He wiped them off as best he could, and placed them on a nearby veteran's headstone -- where Kastner knew they belonged.
Born in Goldsboro on Dec. 21, 1953, Dan Bullock forged his age on his birth certificate in 1969 to join the Marine Corps. He was 14.
Through his own research, Kastner said he learned Bullock had entered the Vietnam War in May of '69, hoping for a "better life."
"He got sent to probably the worst place you could get sent to," Kastner said. "The area was rather large, and there were several battles that went on that night"
That place was Liberty Bridge.
On the night of June 7, little more than a month into his first tour, a fellow Marine talked a now-15-year-old Pfc. Bullock into taking over his shift. Bullock did, but the favor would prove his last.
An enemy assault left Bullock and six of his Fox Company brothers dead.
He became the youngest soldier killed in Vietnam -- a distinction that held up through the end of the war.
Bullock's story caught the attention of documentarians with Sightline Media Group, of Virginia, in December. So the filmmakers sought out to make a documentary for Black History Month which will premiere next month on the Military Times website, www.militarytimes.com.
Multimedia journalist Daniel Woolfolk, with the Military Times, operated the camera as producer Rodney Bryant, with DefenseNews, interviewed Kastner -- who despite also being from the area and also having served in Vietnam, never met Bullock -- at the Goldsboro Public Library Friday.
Kastner, a regional sales manager for Petroleum Equipment Service of Wilson, Inc., entered the war the same year as Bullock, but at age 18.
Kastner, who for the last 25 years has lived in Goldsboro, heard about Bullock's bravery 15 years ago, and began searching for his grave.
"Hearing about Dan and also realizing that he was from Goldsboro, and is buried here in Goldsboro -- it became quite a legacy about Dan."
As a squad sergeant in the United States Army, Kastner felt a connection with Bullock because he himself looked for a better life as a teenager. Kastner had no money for college and had no desire to work in a factory, so he joined the military.
Kastner researched Bullock's history and discovered he was buried at Willowdale Cemetery. He walked the cemetery, but he could not find Bullock's grave.
He then remembered another cemetery -- Elmwood -- just two miles from his house. He drove through the cemetery until he came across a small marker between a line of oak trees. There was no headstone then, just plastic flowers laid upon Bullock's grave.
"The moment of finding his grave was a thing of overwhelming sadness and joy," he said.
He quickly replaced the plastic flowers with two American flags and a Marine Corps flag.
Somehow or another, Kastner said, former talk show host Sally Jessy Raphael became interested in Bullock's story. She purchased a headstone shortly after Kastner found the graveside, he said. A black, granite headstone now sits at the back of Elmwood Cemetery, and a photo of Bullock in his Marine Corps uniform rests centered at its top.
Kastner and his son, Will Kastner, took lawn chairs out to the site in 2012, and Kastner talked to Bullock. He said he would tell Bullock about life now and how much different life is compared to 1969.
"The driving force to me was I think I have a personal relationship with Dan because I understand his feelings of trying to do better with his life," he said.
Kastner continues to visit the cemetery, even after Hurricane Matthew hit Wayne County last October. Kastner said he crawled under the fence of the cemetery after the storm to make sure Bullock's casket had not come up from the ground. He found Bullock's grave untouched by the hurricane, but he found the dirty American flags in the creek.
He never found the Marine Corps flag.
Kastner still sets up his lawn chair in front of Bullock's grave twice a month to talk about life.
"I feel a lot in common with him," he said. "I was very young, and I wanted to make a better life for myself."
"Except for the age, he did it a little younger than I did. Had he lived, there never would have been anything known about him."