I’m not proud to say that I’m like most Americans when it comes to Memorial Day. The meaning is largely lost amid the pleasures of a day off of work, backyard barbecues, the first weekend of open swimming pools, and the sense that the long days of summer are just beginning.
But I recognize that the day has deep meaning to many American families. It should be revered for the sacrifices of our military members and veterans to protect our freedoms, despite divergent opinions about our government’s decisions in deploying our forces.
There was one Memorial Day that stands out for me, when I did something appropriate, traditional, meaningful and memorable. As a reporter for The Baltimore Sun in Carroll County, a largely rural Maryland jurisdiction, I was covering the dedication of the Carroll County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which honored 18 county residents killed in Vietnam and one missing in action. I attended the Memorial Day military service and the dedication of the memorial that followed – three engraved panels depicting combat and humanitarian scenes and the names of the lost.
Leading up to the dedication, I interviewed and wrote features about several families who lost family members in Vietnam, and others who served in the war. Their stories were powerful and made a lasting impression on me. Those who were killed were only about 12 years older than me, barely out of high school when they enlisted and were sent to fight in a faraway land.
I was in elementary school and younger when the Vietnam War was raging, so was largely oblivious to its horrors and how it divided the nation. I have imagined what it would have been like to be these guys fighting a shadowy enemy in the jungle, not knowing whether each day could be their last.
Even 25 years after the 1990 memorial dedication, I remembered the names of one of the U.S. Army veterans I interviewed, Dennis Vonella, and Vonella’s friend from Carroll County and fellow Army soldier, Joseph W. Blickenstaff Jr. (Joey Blick, as I remember Vonella called him), who died in Vietnam at age 21 in a helicopter crash. At the time of the interview, it had been 20 years since Joey Blick had died, yet I distinctly remember how palpable Vonella’s memories of his buddy were and how unshakable their bond through their shared experience. As I remember, Vonella was still tight with Joey Blick’s father, Joseph Blickenstaff Sr.
Out of curiosity, I looked up Dennis Vonella on the Internet, and was sad to see that he had died at the relatively young age of 58 in 2008. But what was more upsetting was the way he died, described in an article in The Virginian-Pilot. In retirement, Vonella had moved to a dream setting in Manteo, NC, a seaside town where he could enjoy fishing and boating, and was working as a booking agent for a cruise and fishing expedition charter service.
One night, Vonella’s wife called police to their home because Dennis was despondent and threatening to commit suicide. The police report said Dennis came out of his room and fired shots at police, but none were hit and none returned fire.
Police set up a perimeter around the residence and contacted Vonella by phone. Vonella appeared on the deck and began shooting, agitated and yelling at police. He went back inside, but re-emerged and fired again. Officers returned fire, hitting and killing Vonella, who had no history of attacking police or criminal record.
The police report could not conclude whether Vonella committed “suicide by cop,” but mentions it as a possibility.
Reading of Vonella’s disturbing ending leads me to wonder whether he ever could have really left the dread of Vietnam behind, or come to terms with the death of his friend Joey Blick and surely others. Or whether he suffered from, and succumbed to, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that he could not resolve.
The Dennis Vonellas and Joseph Blickenstaffs of this nation are what Memorial Day really is all about — brave men and women who sign up and ship off, with no guarantee of ever coming home. And those who may suffer in silence for the rest of their lives at what they have seen and done and experienced that the rest of us never will understand.