By Joanie Morris
For the Salisbury Post
Sons of the Dark and Bloody Ground
Ye must not slumber there,
Where stranger steps and tongues resound
Along the heedless air.
Your own proud land’s heroic soil
Shall be your fitter grave;
She claims from war his richest spoil --
The ashes of her brave.
— Theodore O’Hara
1847 Excerpted from “Bivouac of the Dead”
CONCORD — You can only speculate about the last moments of a Vietnam soldier killed in action. Imagine the choking clouds of dust followed by a heavy pattering of rain, those adrenaline-filled heartbeats of a soldier, ready to do what his country asked him to.
Imagine that soldier, fingering a lucky Zippo lighter in his pocket, another touching a cross nestled around his neck, all of them checking their weapons.
They take fire, three don’t make it out.
Things similar to these may have happened during the last moments of Sgt. First Class Donald “Donnie” Monroe Shue. Shue, an Army Green Beret, was serving with two others when they went missing on a mission Nov. 3, 1969. Shue, Staff Sgt. William Brown and Staff Sgt. Gunther Wald were last seen wounded 30 miles inside Laos, near Ban Chakevy Tai in Saravane Province. According to military documents, Shue and the other two men — as well as several men who escaped — were attached to a unit performing highly classified maneuvers throughout Southeast Asia.
The family was notified and Shue was listed as missing in action. On Jan. 15, 1979, he was classified as killed in action, and a military marker was put above an empty grave at Carolina Memorial Park.
Saturday, Shue finally came home.
His remains were found after lines in Southeast Asia were redrawn and the location where Shue, Brown and Wald were last seen was shifted to Vietnam’s control. The U.S. sent a recovery team into the area. According to military records, the team found a Zippo lighter with Shue’s name engraved on it in the remains of the three men, discovered on a farm. The men were found two years ago.
Saturday, Shue made his way slowly from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport behind a procession of police officers, motorcyclists and military escorts. Behind him, the family cars, followed by nine miles of motorcyclists — members of the Patriot Guard, Rolling Thunder, Ghost Riders and more.
“Donnie left behind grieving parents,” said Concord Mayor Scott Padgett, addressing a crowd packing the streets in downtown Concord. Padgett added that he left behind loving sisters and lifelong friends. “He left behind others who never met him but wore his bracelet.”
During the somber ceremony in Concord, American Red Cross workers handed out water and snacks, and employees of the city of Concord’s Buildings and Grounds Department volunteered to hand out small American flags to the crowd.
Flags billowed in the breeze of the afternoon, teasing the arms and necks of people close enough to feel them. Concord resident Laura Raynor performed “God Bless America” as birds sang along, continuing to be heard throughout the ceremony.
Danny Plyler, of Kannapolis, held up a sign through the entire ceremony. Written on it, “Welcome home Donnie! We love you Betty!” Though his arms may have tired, Plyler held the sign high, which had little American flags taped to it and was decorated with hearts.
“We know the sisters, Betty and Peggy,” said Plyler. “We’re here to finally give closer to them.”
First Lt. Michael Kluttz, a member of the N.C. National Guard and currently working at the Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office, attended the service with his brother Capt. Todd Kluttz, who is serving on active duty at Fort Bragg.
“Our father served in Vietnam and was in high school with Sgt. Shue here in Concord back in the ’60s,” said Lt. Kluttz. “When we came home from Iraq, there was a big welcome home. These guys never got that. We’re here for him and all the vets who never got a welcome home.”
Andrew Cave, of Charlotte, is also stationed at Fort Bragg.
“My dad has a friend that was a friend with him in high school,” said Cave when asked why he attended the ceremony. “I figured I’d come out and show my support.”
The stories of why people came continued. At least half of the people in attendance could claim some connection to the U.S. military — their son or daughter serves in Iraq now, they have served or one of their parents or siblings served.
Mike Gearing, a special forces Army veteran from Lincolnton, served in the same unit as Shue, though he never met the young man.
Christina Kazakavage, of Harnett County, attended the event in support of the family. A Gold Star Mother, she lost her son, Tech Sgt. Adam Ginette in Afghanistan in January 2010.
Maj. Gen. Gregory Lusk, of the North Carolina National Guard, spoke briefly at the service on Shue’s sacrifice. He described Shue and the men who served with him as having backbones of steel and wills of iron.
“There are no amount of flowery words that will ease the pain of the loss of a loved one,” he said, addressing sisters Betty Jones and Peggy Hinson. “He will forever be that young man with the infectious smile.
Addressing the hearse carrying the flag-draped casket of Shue, Lusk was brief.
“I now ask you Sgt. First Class Shue to rest,” he said. “You have been relieved of your duty. You gave all of your tomorrow so we may have today.”
Jeff Phillips, president of Rolling Thunder N.C. Chapter 2, spoke on the men and women still missing in action from war.
“We could very well be doing this next week,” said Phillips, gesturing to the crowd packed onto Union Street. “Only one third of Vietnam veterans are alive today. If there are any POWs still alive (over there), they don’t have much time.
“We want them home,” he shouted to the crowd. “Nothing less.”
He suggested that anyone kin to anyone who is missing in action contribute DNA to the proper authorities. There are bodies still unidentified at Pearl Harbor, where Shue’s body was held before flights brought him home Saturday.
“We want our boys home,” he said. “We will not stop until it happens.”
Lou Deseta rode his motorcycle from New Castle, Del., to help welcome Shue home.
“I served in Vietnam in the same unit as Don,” said Deseta. Though he left before Shue got there, he feels a connection. “I want to give honor to him and see this beautiful town. It’s a great honor to be here with the family.”
For Doug Letourneau, of Nashville, Tenn., the homecoming of Shue was bittersweet.
“Donnie replaced me on the team,” said Letourneau. “He took my bed, and all my gear out. We are connected that way.”
He knows it could just as easily have been him who died on that remote farm in Laos.
It could have been, but it wasn’t.
Those young soldiers who died on the field of battle on Nov. 3, 1969, died doing what they loved.
As was said more than once during the day Saturday — gone but not forgotten.
“At last we welcome home our native son,” Lusk said. “The circle is now complete.”