Posted on Sun, Feb. 08, 2004
A young man once left for war. He didn't come home.
A mother cannot forget
When Dale Pulliam left for Vietnam almost 38 years ago, he could have wrapped his arms around a slender maple tree in his front yard between Haysville and Derby. In the years since he left the home where Betty and Leonard Pulliam raised him, the tree has grown to 3 feet wide.
Dale, a 21-year-old Marine lance corporal, died from an enemy mortar attack near Vietnam's demilitarized zone on Mother's Day 1967. And at 4 p.m. the next day -- his mother will never forget what time it was -- two Marines arrived to give the news to her and Leonard.
When Betty heard the words, when the shock struck her, she remembers, "I had a wild impulse to run to the bathroom and lock the door."
She wanted to shut out the terrible news and hide. She pounded her husband's chest as he put his arms around her.
"No, no, no!" she cried.
And now, when she hears about a soldier dying in Iraq, she says, "I cry... because another boy has died. It is a devastating thing for a family to go through."
She would know.
The families of men and women dying in Iraq have only begun to experience the kind of loss she has survived for nearly four decades.
She is 78 now, part of a dwindling generation of parents who lost sons in Vietnam.
To know what she has endured is to know what other families might face.
She sees parallels between the two wars. "To me, it's almost like Vietnam all over again because we shouldn't have been in Vietnam, and we shouldn't be in Iraq."
In both cases, as she views it, Americans sending children to war were "told a big story, but it wasn't true."
But she remains supportive of troops serving overseas now, and a sign in her front yard says so. "You can't blame them for anything," she says.
Letters from Dale
Dale attended Derby schools but transferred to Clearwater High School his junior year so he could play more sports. He graduated with Clearwater's Class of 1964.
In Betty's living room -- where Dale put his arm around her before going to war in 1966 -- hangs a picture of Dale wearing his Marine dress blues.
His face resembled his mother's, but "his eyes were darker than mine," Betty says. "His eyes could talk." Dale was so friendly, she says. Dale never met a stranger -- she often uses that phrase to describe him.
The Clearwater community lost four of its own in Vietnam, including Dale, Betty says. "And in a small town like that, that was a lot."
Almost a year since U.S. soldiers went into harm's way in Iraq, more than 500 have died. In Dale's war, sometimes 500 soldiers died in just one week.
But even war had its wondrous moments for Dale. "The stars are so beautiful at night, it seems like you're out in your own back yard," says a letter Dale wrote from Vietnam to a friend in February 1967. But, he added, "you're really here and have to be alert at all hours of the night.
"Today most of us stopped at a river and took baths. It made me think of being in the river over by Clearwater (except for all the banana trees)."
Betty didn't know until after he died that Dale had sent a letter to his older brother Stanley, a Marine who had returned from sea duty near Vietnam. Dale wanted Stan to know his wishes for any funeral arrangements. He realized he couldn't ignore the possibility of his death.
In March 1967, Dale wrote to the friend: "Our company really got hit hard last week; we killed 700 Viet Cong in two days but 200 of our men (almost the whole outfit) was wounded. I was so scared I couldn't believe I was over here seeing so many men die for no reason."
And in his last letter to the friend, dated May 1, 1967, he wrote: "We are in mountains again and are moving every night to keep from getting surrounded... God will watch over me."
Two weeks after he wrote the letter, as his unit moved toward an enemy position in Quang Tri Province, enemy mortar fire hit Dale the mortar man.
"Your son received multiple fragmentation wounds, which proved to be instantly fatal," said a letter Betty and Leonard received from Dale's commander.
At her home, Betty pulls out the letter, its paper still crisp, its ink signature still vibrant.
Betty has carefully kept the letter along with snapshots Dale sent home. There's Dale strumming a guitar. There's Dale cradling a black and white puppy rescued from a burned village. He wrote about how he fed the pup his "C rations." He carried the vulnerable animal for miles.
As she looks through the pictures, Betty, a woman with good posture and silky white hair, begins to softly cry.
Child's comforting words
One day after Betty received word of Dale's death, a postman delivered his clothes and other personal items in two large boxes. Inside one was his Purple Heart. He had been wounded by shrapnel in his arms about two months before he died. "They patched him up in the field and sent him back out," Betty says.
She also received a watch he wore in one of the pictures, looped into his vest.
The watch bears an indentation, as if something struck it.
After his death, Betty says, she felt compelled to remain strong for her family. Although she talked openly about Dale, she tried not to cry in front of others.
When she had time alone, the tears flowed. She told her doctor: "I go back to bed and cry myself to sleep." He told her that might be a good remedy. Her grief was like a fever. She had to let the fever break.
The most comforting words came from her grandson Cary, 4 at the time of Uncle Dale's death. The first time she saw the boy after Dale died, he told her, emphatically: "Grandma, Grandma, Dale isn't dead!"
God came to him in his bed, Cary told her, took him on a visit to Heaven and showed him that Dale lived there. To this day, she says, Cary's comforting words are "printed on my mind."
She was a stay-at-home mother and wife and tried to stay busy and positive.
She would tell herself, "Thank God, I still have three children" -- Stan and daughters Sandra and Sheryl.
Art became an outlet. She took a painting class and created luxurious landscapes that hang from her walls.
She wishes she had had a support group. None were available to her in 1967.
In 1971, she joined Gold Star Mothers, whose members have lost sons or daughters who died while serving in the military. The group became part of her identity, part of her coping. She is working to have a Gold Star Mothers monument erected at Wichita's Veterans Memorial Park. She serves on the group's national executive board.
Over the years, she learned a survivor's saying: "You don't ever get over it. You learn to live with it."
She learned to live with Dale's death. She survived breast cancer, survived heart problems.
Betty's husband, Leonard, a World War II Army veteran who survived the Normandy invasion, endured his son's death as well. He retired after 31 years at Boeing, where he worked as a tool and die maker.
Health problems resulted in his leg being amputated. But Betty was proud of him because he didn't give up. With one leg, he would get on his motorized scooter, reach down with a short-handled rake and gather any debris that blew onto his lawn. Leonard died in 1998.
Dale died, but his legacy survives. Some of his nephews and great-nephews have "Dale" as middle or first names.
Closure in Vietnam?
Dale remains a tangible part of his mother's life. Standing in her living room, Betty stoops by her fireplace and picks up a sturdy teddy bear. "This was Dale's bear," she says, laughing as she holds the stuffed animal. She brings the bear out around Christmas time.
Even 37 years after Dale died in combat, she still has questions. "I found it awfully strange that after all this, we haven't heard from anyone who was with him." He was assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. "Did they all get killed or what?" And what happened to his dog tags? She never got them.
A few ago, Betty heard about other mothers traveling to Vietnam so they could see where their sons died in the war. At first, Betty didn't like the idea. She thought it would bring back bad memories. She wondered if such a trip might make her feel animosity toward whoever killed her son.
But she has decided to take the journey and just received her passport. She thinks the trip may give her the closure she has yet to feel.
The lack of closure, Betty says, has to do with never getting to see Dale's body. His casket remained closed.
For a while after he died, she hoped it was all a mistake. She couldn't help clinging to a desperate belief that it wasn't Dale's body that had come home. Dale was supposed to return in September 1967. Maybe he would still walk through her door as the maple tree started to drop its leaves.
But September came and went, and she knew: Dale would never walk past the maple tree in the front yard again. The maple tree kept growing without him.
Betty had an unsettling dream about his homecoming. In the dream, Dale walks down her sidewalk with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. In the dream state, she tells Leonard to hurry up and hide a telegram announcing Dale's death, so she could shield her son from his own death notice.
Now, she believes it might rest her mind to see the land where Dale last walked this world.
Where he sweated under forest canopies, where he stared at star-lit skies that reminded him of his back yard, where he saved a puppy -- where he gave his life.
Reach Tim Potter at 268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DALE PULLIAM'S NAME ON THE VIRTUAL WALL