Where heroes lie buried
Morgan County couple honors servicemen killed in Vietnam
By Catherine Godbey
For the Enquirer
Over the past six months, Don and Heather Collins have spent dozens of hours searching cemeteries across north Alabama. They have walked past neatly manicured headstones adorned with fresh flowers and traipsed through overgrown, snake-infested burial plots.
Nothing has stopped them from their mission — to install American flags next to the graves of Morgan County’s fallen Vietnam War heroes.
“Each of these young men pledged allegiance to serve under the flag, fought under the flag and came home in coffins draped with a flag. They sure do deserve a flag flying over them at their final resting place,” said Don, a veteran himself.
This Memorial Day, American flags flew over the final resting places of most of Morgan County’s Vietnam War casualties, thanks to the Collinses.
For the Falkville couple, the mission to memorialize the servicemen who died during the Vietnam War began last year.
During a visit to the Morgan County Archives, an image of U.S. Army Pvt. Tommy Lee Nicholas captured their attention. Feb. 23, 1966, the 21-year-old Decatur native — the first to volunteer for service when recruiters visited Lakeside High School in 1965 — died in Vietnam. He was Morgan County’s first casualty of the Vietnam War.
“Seeing his picture really touched my heart,” said Don, who served in Vietnam from 1967-1973. “It made such an impression on me. I started thinking about all the other guys I knew that died during Vietnam. That’s when we decided to see how many more from Morgan County we could find.”
With the help of Morgan County archivist John Allison, the couple learned about the 23 Morgan County men who died while serving in the Vietnam War.
Ranging in age from 18–36, the soldiers, pilots and Marines were sons, brothers, uncles and fathers. Each had his own story.
“We heard about why these guys decided to serve. One guy was single and enlisted so that someone who was married with children would not have to. We got very close to them,” Don said.
To honor the men, Don and Heather set out – as part of the Wreaths Across America campaign – on a mission to place a wreath at each of the graves.
“The most common thing I hear people say is, ‘Somebody ought to do something.’ Well, Don and Heather did something,” said Allison, who identified the cemeteries where the men are buried. “Even though we had the name of the cemetery, someone needed to go out and locate the graves. That is what Don and Heather did. They did the hard work.”
That work led the Collinses to Winston County, Walker County, Lawrence County, Cullman County, Marshall County and all across Morgan County, from Somerville to Hartselle to Decatur.
They walked through the cemeteries, row by row, brushing leaves off the flat stones issued by the government to servicemen and women. They spent four hours at one cemetery searching for a grave. Don, 72, knelt next to some of the graves, scissors in hand, to cut away the grass that had grown over the stones.
“The guy buried out in the rural cemetery is not any less important than the guy at Roselawn. We need to take care of and honor all of them,” Don said. “I consider it an honor to care for these graves. These men are my heroes. We cannot forget them. Because of them, we have the freedoms we have.”
After seeing the unkempt conditions of some of the cemeteries, the Collinses’ mission expanded. Not only would they place wreaths at the graves, they would clean up the sites and ensure an American flag flew above every stone.
“We have beautiful cemeteries, like Roselawn and the city cemetery, but not all of our fallen soldiers’ graves are at well-kept cemeteries, and not all of them look pretty,” Heather said. “There are some that are grown-up and snake infested. Just looking, you wouldn’t even know a hero was buried there.”
To date, Don and Heather have visited and secured poles with American flags at 20 graves in north Alabama. “When you see that flag flying, you know right there is where a hero is buried,” Don said.
Along with the men buried in state, Marine Staff Sgt. Paul George Hendrix is buried in Texas, Army Pvt. Jackey Van Knighten is buried in Arkansas, and the body of Air Force Lt. Col. Ralph Nathaniel Pattillo was never recovered after being shot down. A memorial marker at Hartselle City Cemetery honors Pattillo.
“It’s inspiring to see what Don and Heather have done. Hopefully they will inspire others to act,” Allison said.
The Collinses said they hope volunteers and school groups will help keep the graves maintained.
“We would love for people to adopt the graves and come out a couple of times a year to make they are OK and taken care of,” Heather said. “We really want to get school groups involved. It is a great way to build patriotism and to teach them about history.”
To ensure the stories of Morgan County’s 23 Vietnam War casualties are told, the Collinses partnered with Hartselle author Lisa Worthey Smith to write “Unsung Heroes: The Vietnam War and the Faces We Forgot to Remember.” The book uses the stories of the young men to look at what led to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and what happened after the country’s withdrawal.
“This is a picture of what happened in our county during the war, but it could be Any Town, USA,” Don said. “We can’t stop here. This is just one county of Alabama’s 67 counties. This is just one war. We need to honor all of our heroes.”
The book’s dedication reads, “This is dedicated to the memory of the 23 young men from Morgan County who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving in Vietnam and a tribute to all the men and women across the nation who lost their lives during Vietnam and to offer our sincere gratitude.”
Those 23 men are U.S. Army Spc. Rodger Pinkney Crow, 21; Cpl. Billy Wayne Earp, 22; Pvt. George Kenneth Golden, 18; Pvt. Thomas Gurley, 23; Sgt. Gary Bluitt Harris, 20; Pvt. Jackey Van Knighten, 20; Pvt. Tommy Lee Nicholas, 21; First Lt. William Hilliard Overton, 22; Pvt. Roy Donald Page, 20; Cpl. Johnnie Bruce Sewell, 21; Cpl. Arie Terry, 24; Cpl. David Lee Turner, 26; Pvt. Lloyd Voyles, 20; First Lt. Morgan William Weed, 25; Marine Cpl. Bobby Ray Alexander, 20; Staff Sgt. Paul George Hendrix, 32; Lance Cpl. John Wallace Hose Jr., 18; Pvt. Gerald Bruce Lane, 20; Pvt. John Earl McVay, 19; Pvt. Carl Eugene Morgan, 18; Pvt. James Arthur Randall, 21; Cpl. Ronald Dudley Rich, 22; and Lt. Col. Ralph Nathaniel Pattillo, 36.
Individuals interested in adopting a grave can email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit the Facebook page of Vets Like Us, an organization founded by Don and Heather Collins and run by their son Patrick Collins, a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan