On a recent hot summer Sunday, in a remote and sunny cemetery in central Virginia, a man from Mount Airy concluded a 33-year trip.
And in doing so, he was reminded that the celebrations enjoyed by many across the country today, Independence Day, have come at a terrible price to many throughout the country’s history.
Roger Keck’s visit to the small cemetery at the Pentecostal Church in Maple Grove, just outside of Dillwyn, Va., Was a trip he had wanted to take since 1988. In some ways, it was a trip he took. he had done since 1966, the first and so far only, the time he had ever visited the city of Virginia.
This first time, in August 1966, he was a sergeant in the American army, sent there with a sacred mission: he accompanied the corps of the Pfc. David Banks Bryant, who at 23 was killed in Vietnam.
“I was ordered to escort his body to his home,” Keck said recently, recalling that solemn train journey nearly six decades ago. Keck was stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, towards the end of his five-year stent in the military.
His mission was in some ways straightforward – he accompanied the body home, made sure it was received properly at a local funeral home, and then watched the fallen soldier’s body every day for five days, until the deceased soldier be buried. .
Keck said it was a sad task, of course – watching a family, in this case parents, siblings, receive the body of their loved one is a difficult experience, but the weight of duty doesn’t has not completely disappeared. at the time.
“At the time, I was young. It was a job I had to do. I probably didn’t think much about it, because it was a job I was ordered to do.
As is often the case, time changed his perspective on this mission, with other events revealing the gravity of what he was commissioned to do.
The first of these events was his own personal tragedy – the loss of a son, who died in a car crash in 1983.
“When a family loses a child, it’s not the same as losing a spouse,” he said. After the loss of his own son, Keck said he began to think back to 1966, accompanying Pfc’s body. Bryant returns to the hometown of the deceased soldier, from the deep loss his parents must have felt.
Five years later, in 1988, Keck said he and his wife, Donna, were visiting the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, when he found Bryant’s name carved into the monument.
“I then told my wife that I wanted to return to this grave one day and visit the family.”
The only problem was that Keck said he couldn’t remember the name of the town, or the funeral home, or even the church where the soldier was buried.
“I have family in and around Richmond, Virginia, and I asked them to see if they could find a cemetery there with their headstone and name on it, to no avail.”
He made other attempts to try to find the burial site, but all were equally unsuccessful, although he still had some hope of finding his way at some point.
Then came a house cleaning project last month, in which Keck discovered several of his military papers.
And there, in his old briefcase, were the orders he had received so many decades ago, in such good condition that they looked like they had been freshly typed that day – and they clearly showed that the body had been taken to Dunkum Funeral Home in Dillwyn.
“It was June 4, I pulled out the files, found the orders,” Keck recalls.
An internet search showed the funeral home was still in business, and a quick call put him in touch with Karen Dunkum, whose husband’s family had run the funeral home for generations. She wrote down the relevant information, then they hung up.
Less than half an hour later, she called back Keck’s call.
Yes, she said they still had all the relevant files. Yes, they had the name of the church where he was buried – Maple Grove Pentecostal. And yes, he still had family living in the area, Bryant’s younger brother, who was now 75.
And one more piece of information – that day, June 4, when Keck found the old military records, when he contacted Dunkum, was Bryant’s birthday. He would have been 78 that day.
“Chills came over me,” Keck said. “I’ve been looking for this for so long. It had been 55 years… and to find this on his birthday.
Bryant’s brother, Richard Bryant, remembered Keck and said he was looking forward to meeting him again. So on June 13, Keck and his wife went to Dillwyn early in the morning.
There he said they had met Richard Bryant as well as Karen Dunkum. They went to church that morning at Maple Grove Pentecostal, and then the group went to Bryant’s grave, where Keck placed flowers and an American flag.
“For me, it was very moving, I fell in love,” he said, becoming solemn at the memory. “I have such a true and honest love for my country and for these men who have died. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about it, even now… It’s a real connection, I’ll tell you.
Keck said while it is normal for individuals to think of those who died in service on Remembrance Day and to thank those who served on Veterans Day, other holidays, such as Memorial Day. independence, make him think of men and women like Bryant, who sacrificed his life in the service of the nation.
For Keck, he said making the trip last month, so many years after that first train ride to Dillwyn, was “something I had to do. It was out of respect for him and his family.