Rob Oxford: a personal Memorial Day

Monday, May 27, 2019

S. Sgt. Dennis W. Anderson (Vietnam 1965)

By Rob Oxford

Although first observed in the town of Waterloo, N.Y. on May 5, 1866 – only a year after the end of the Civil War, Memorial Day didn’t become a National Holiday until 1971.

Because it was one of the first communities to host an annual, community-wide event, during which businesses closed and residents decorated the graves of soldiers with flowers and flags, 100 years later in 1966, Waterloo would be designated by the federal government as the official birthplace of “Memorial Day”.

Honoring each of our Military Veterans is of course unquestionably essential, but Memorial Day is meant to specifically honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice while still serving in the United States Armed Forces.

S Sgt. Dennis W. Anderson
The “Ultimate Sacrifice”. The words seem so easily said, but for my friend Danette Anderson Thompson, so much more than mere words. Danette is, of course, not alone.

Approximately 58,209 Americans died during the Vietnam conflict. I mention Vietnam specifically because that’s where my father served and where Danette’s father paid that “ultimate sacrifice.”

Until you actually meet someone who lost a loved one in battle you don’t fully understand the gravity of such a loss. So many stories of husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and in some cases daughters, fighting wars in defense of our freedoms, never to return to their families and loved ones. Such heroism and bravery. 

I was lucky, my father came home from Vietnam. Danette’s father was one of the 58, 209 soldiers who did not.

Although I’d known Danette since high school, I had no idea her father died in Vietnam. The year was 1966 and Danette was 7 ½. While asking her permission to write this article, I couldn’t bring myself to inquire about the particulars of his death. I wanted to know and she probably would have told me all she knew, but I realized before asking, the where and how wasn’t important.

Dennis W. Anderson Jr. receiving his father's Bronze Star
What was important was that Dec 11, 1966, just two weeks before Christmas, 30-year-old SSGT. Dennis W. Anderson, born in Winner, S.D., left behind a wife and four children. One of those children is my friend.

After reconnecting with Danette several years ago, I found out that she was born at Madigan Army Hospital in Tacoma. After returning from Vietnam, my father was in charge of the mess hall at Madigan.

Occasionally my brothers and I would tag along as he went about the business of planning and preparing meals for the officers and enlisted men. 

I distinctly remember how proud and honored I felt when upon entering the base, the guards would salute my father as he passed through.

Had he returned from Vietnam, Danette’s father may very well have been treated to some of my father’s world famous goulash.

Although I’m not certain “treat” is the best word to describe this delicacy comprised of anything leftover in the refrigerator and thrown into a pot to cook?

Danette and her family left Washington State in May of 1969 and moved to Grapevine, TX. where she still resides. As anyone who has gone about the business of starting a career and raising a family can attest, Danette’s ability to visit her father’s gravesite has been limited. For this reason and because Tumwater, where his grave is located, is only 76 miles from my house, a few years ago I decided to pay a visit on her behalf.

S. Sgt. Anderson's gravesite
in Tumwater
After getting up early the Sunday before Memorial Day, I drove to Olympia Memorial Gardens, now called Mills and Mills Memorial Park. It wasn’t something I felt I needed to do; it was something I wanted to do. Not only for my friend Danette, but for myself.

My parents were both cremated and their ashes scattered together per their wishes. There are no graves for me to visit and although many of my relatives are veterans of the military, none paid the ultimate sacrifice.

This was an opportunity to show my respect to the father of a friend and to one of those whom Memorial Day is dedicated. I found Mr. Anderson's grave, said a prayer and thank you, took a couple photos for Danette and left flowers on his family’s behalf.

While there, I imagined myself a 7 ½ year old little girl not being given the chance to say goodbye to my father. I imagined myself having to live the rest of my life with that hole in my heart. The drive home was difficult, but I will be making that drive again this year.

This article is dedicated to the memory of S. Sgt. Dennis W. Anderson, his daughter Danette and the men and women of the United States Armed Forces who for decades have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Thank you and God Bless You.


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