This Memorial Day, Honor the Fallen, Including This Farm Boy


As a combat veteran, I often feel awkward when someone wishes me “Happy Memorial Day.” Usually, I don’t correct them because I understand they mean well. This kind gesture comes from a misinterpretation of what Memorial Day truly signifies.

Memorial Day is dedicated to remembering and honoring the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who have sacrificed their lives in service to this country and its people. It is meant for somber reflection, not celebration.

This Memorial Day, I encourage you to reflect on the sacrifices made by those we honor. Don’t just spend a moment acknowledging that they died too young before moving on to your celebrations. Delve deeper.

Here is something simple everyone can do: Take 30 minutes to visit the Wall of Faces, where you’ll find photos and memorials for all those who were killed in Vietnam. Choose a date that is significant to you—perhaps your birthday, wedding anniversary, or college graduation. Then, look at the names of the men who died on that date during the Vietnam War.

See their photos. Read the comments left by family, friends, and comrades. Reflect on what they gave up. Most of them would now be in their 70s or 80s. They missed out on decades filled with joy, laughter, sorrow, and everything that constitutes a life.

You might find yourself spending more than half an hour there. You may even return for subsequent visits. That’s my hope.

Here is a brief story about one such soldier whose name is enshrined on the Wall.

Garney Burleson was a farm boy from North Carolina. He isn’t famous, and you won’t read about him anywhere but here. He served in the elite aero-rifle platoon of B Troop, 1/9 Cavalry, part of the renowned 1st Cavalry Division, also known as the “Bravo Blues.”

Garney was killed in action on January 28, 1971, in Binh Tuy Province, Vietnam. He was only 20 years old.

He’s buried in the cemetery of a small country church outside Asheville, N.C. Today, he has no immediate family left to remember him—no parents, no siblings, and he never had children.

At the time of his death, Garney had been in Vietnam for about three months. He was serving under his second platoon leader, his first having been medically evacuated due to injuries.

Garney kept a cool head under fire. During one firefight, he lay behind a tree, firing at North Vietnamese soldiers just yards away with his body protected by the tree. An enemy soldier returned fire, hitting the front sight-blade of his M-16, with the bullet traveling the length of the rifle and taking out the rear sight as well. Had Garney been looking through the sights, the bullet would have hit his head. Despite this, Garney showed his damaged but operable rifle to a nearby soldier, smiled, and calmly said, “They’re shooting pretty close today, aren’t they.”

Garney’s last platoon leader, known as “Blue” for his radio call sign, was just feet away when Garney was killed. Blue carried Garney’s body to an evacuation helicopter that could barely navigate a small opening in the trees. On Memorial Day 2018, this platoon leader traveled from Knoxville, Tennessee, to visit his fallen soldier’s grave.

The platoon leader was distressed by what he found at the church and cemetery. He had hoped to find a memorial service or other mourners, but he was alone.

Garney’s grave was not well-maintained. Other veterans were buried there, identifiable by their headstones, but the church had not honored them for Memorial Day, even neglecting to place small American flags on their graves.

The platoon leader went to a nearby store, purchased a small American flag and some flowers, and placed them on Garney’s grave. He then wrote a note to his former soldier, enclosed it in a plastic bag, and left it at the tombstone, secured with a small stone. He hoped that by God’s grace, Garney would know he was not forgotten.

Please join me this Memorial Day in remembering Garney Burleson and all the other members of our armed forces who died in service to our nation. Their sacrifice is what we honor this Memorial Day.

This is the note the platoon leader left for Garney.

John A. Lucas
John A. Lucas
John A. Lucas is a retired attorney who has tried and argued a variety of cases, including before the U. S. Supreme Court. Before entering law school at the University of Texas, he served in the Army Special Forces as an enlisted man, later graduating from the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 1969. He is an Army Ranger who fought in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader. He is married with five children. He and his wife now live in Virginia.

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