55 years later | Mt. Airy News
On a recent warm summer Sunday, in a remote, sunbathed cemetery in central Virginia, a Mount Airy man concluded a trip 33 years in the making.
And in so doing, he was reminded that the celebrations many across the nation enjoy today, on Independence Day, has come with a terrible price for many throughout the nation’s history.
Roger Keck’s visit to the small cemetery at Maple Grove Pentecostal Church just outside of Dillwyn, Virginia, was a trip he’d been wanting to make since 1988. In some respects, it was a journey he’d been on since 1966, the first and up until now only, time he’d ever visited the Virginia town.
That first time, in August of 1966, he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army, sent there with a sacred assignment — he was accompanying the body of Pfc. David Banks Bryant, who at 23 had been killed in Vietnam.
“I got orders to escort his body home,” Keck said recently, recalling that solemn train trip nearly six decades ago. Keck was stationed at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina, nearing the end of his five-year stent in the army.
His assignment was in some ways simple — he would accompany the body home, see that it was received properly at a local funeral home there, then stand watch over the fallen soldier’s body every day for five days, until the deceased soldier was laid to rest.
Keck said it was a sad assignment, to be sure — watching a family, in this case parents, a brother and a sister, receive the body of their loved one is a difficult experience, but the weight of his duty didn’t fully sink in at the time.
“At the time, I was young. It was a job I had to do. I probably didn’t think about it a whole lot about that, because it was a job I was ordered to do.”
As is often the case, time changed his view on that assignment, other events revealing the gravity of what he’d been tasked with doing.
The first of those occurrences was his own personal tragedy — the loss of a son, who died in a car wreck 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 the body of Pfc. Bryant back to the deceased soldier’s hometown, of 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, D.C., when he found Bryant’s name etched in the monument.
“I told my wife, then, I wanted to go back to that grave some day and visit the family.”
Only problem was, 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 his gravestone and name on it, to no avail.”
He made other attempts at trying to find the burial site, but all were equally fruitless, though he still harbored some hope of finding his way at some point.
Then came a home cleaning project last month, during which Keck discovered many of his military papers.
And there, in his old briefcase, were the orders he received so many decades ago, in such good shape they appeared as if they might have been freshly typed that day — and they clearly showed the body had been taken to Dunkum Funeral Home in Dillwyn.
“It was June 4 I got the records out, found the orders,” Keck recalled.
An internet search showed the funeral home was still in business, and a quick call had him in touch with Karen Dunkum, whose husband’s family had been managing the funeral home for generations. She took down the relevant information, then they hung up.
Less than a half-hour later, she returned Keck’s call.
Yes, she said they still had all of the relevant records. 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 on that day.
“Cold chills ran over me,” Keck said. “I’d been looking for that for so long. It had been 55 years…and to find that on his birthday.”
Bryant’s brother, Richard Bryant, remembered Keck and said he was anxious to meet him again. So on June 13, Keck and his wife took an early morning drive to Dillwyn.
There, he said they met Richard Bryant as well as Karen Dunkum. They attended church that morning at Maple Grove Pentecostal, and afterward the group walked out to Bryant’s grave, where Keck placed flowers and an American flag.
“For me, it was very emotional, I broke down,” he said, growing solemn at the memory. “I have such a true, honest love for my country and for these men who died. It’s sometimes hard to talk about it, even now…It’s a true connection, I’ll tell you that.”
Keck said that while it is normal for individuals to think about those who have died in service on Memorial Day, and to thank those who have served on Veteran’s Day, other holidays, such as Independence Day, make him think of men and women such as Bryant, who sacrificed their lives in service to 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 all out of respect for him and his family.”