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Crowley: Think of their lives, not death
Memorial Day speaker notes how Vietnam War casualties have continued for half a century
Memorial Day 2023
Keynote speaker Phil Crowley pauses as he remembers friends who died in combat while serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam during the Statesboro Memorial Day program at the Averitt Center for the Arts on Monday, May 29, 2023. (SCOTT BRYANT/staff)

Delivering this year’s Memorial Day address in downtown Statesboro, Vietnam War combat veteran Phil Crowley urged people to think of life, not death. But he also spoke passionately of how the losses of life did not end on the battlefield, since Agent Orange and suicide have shortened the lives of veterans he knew.

Crowley wore his biker vest – he’s vice president of the Statesboro Blues Chapter of the U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club – with a tie as he delivered the keynote address Monday at the observance hosted by American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90, of which he’s also a member. Most ground-level seats in the theater were filled, as attendance appears to be rebounding after the pandemic years. An unusual number of motorcycles were parked along East Main Street, and the Legion offered everyone burgers and hot dogs at the post on Rucker Lane after the 11 a.m. program.

“Those who have been personally affected by war understand and appreciate this day of remembrance. But what should we say to those who sincerely honor this day?” Crowley asked. “Happy Memorial Day’? I think not. That’s not fitting. ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ may be more appropriate.”

“And what would the fallen soldier want from their comrades and the rest of the country on this day?” he continued, and answered with a quote from an 1884 Memorial Day speech by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.:

“Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death – of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. …”

“The American soldier who gave his or her life for U.S. citizens to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness won’t be telling us how to observe this day,” Crowley said. “But I believe that Holmes’ proposition to ‘think of life, not death’ would honor the fallen soldier.”

Combat veteran

Crowley, a Statesboro native, graduated from Statesboro High School in 1966, joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and stayed in until 1970. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968, just as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, which resulted in a large number of casualties for U.S. and South Vietnamese forces.

He served with Headquarters Battery 6th Battalion, 14th Artillery in Pleiku. Remote field batteries maintained 175mm and 8-inch self-propelled guns. As battalion armorer, he spent more than half his one-year tour of duty traveling to the batteries with convoys through areas where enemy forces were active.

Crowley served on search-and-destroy patrols along with 4th Infantry Division soldiers who were assigned to the remote batteries, and hitched many rides on helicopters, including one that was shot down, according to a brief biographical summary. But he didn’t talk about those things Monday.

A personal turn

Instead, when he took a “personal” turn midway through his speech, it was to talk about friends – brothers and sisters he called them – who died in combat and others who have died since of war-related causes.

“Many didn’t volunteer. Yet none shirked or ducked their obligations as citizens. … And they didn’t go for the love of war and fighting,” he has said. “They answered their nation’s call because they wanted to protect a nation which has given them – and us – so much.”

He said nothing has changed today as “more Americans step forward to say, ‘I’m ready to serve…’”

“A lot of you veterans in the audience young and old know the pain of losing a comrade in battle,” Crowley said. “The pain and memory haunts us each and every day and night. …”

Memorial Day 2023
Attendees of the Statesboro Memorial Day program at the Emma Kelly Theater sing "God Bless America" together on Monday, May 29, 2023.

Agent Orange

“Here’s where I get a little bit personal,” he said. “We as Vietnam veterans not only lost brothers and sisters in an unpopular war, but we are also losing our brothers and sisters to an awful aftermath, Agent Orange, which has taken so many from us already in the prime of their life and is taking us at an alarming rate every day.

“Our government told us that it will kill the foliage but it would not harm us,” he said. “I have brothers buried in Glennville Veterans Cemetery, Bulloch Memorial Gardens, cemeteries in Effingham and surrounding counties that would debunk that, were they still alive.”

As American Legion Post 90 Commander Gary Martin noted in introducing him, Crowley acknowledges a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and credits his wife Denise with helping him through it. Memorial Day, he said, is normally a day of quiet reflection for him.

“It’s a day I struggle to keep my mind from straying into dark places. I think of all of us who served in Vietnam, the good times, the good friendships. …,” he said. “I think of all my brothers and sisters who were killed over there, and I usually cry.”

He called the names of comrades he proudly served with who died during his year in Vietnam: Capt. William C. Whitehead Jr., their battery commander; Warrant Officer Frank Warren Jones, chopper pilot; and soldiers Franco Di’Tullio, Calvin Maxwell, John Healey, Tillman David Rogers, Thomas Daniels, Thomas Greisen, John Royce, David Borne Platt and Donald F. Van Cook.

“Their names are inscribed on that one black Wall in Washington, D.C., along with 58,000 other heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

He also spoke of, as brothers whom he honors and would never forget, two members of the local U.S. Military Vets Motorcycle Club chapter “taken away from us too soon by illnesses caused by Agent Orange exposure,” Walter Barnett, also known as “Joker,” and Robert Sladick, AKA “Skip.” 

Crowley, whose biker nickname, “Country,” was given him by comrades in Vietnam because he was from rural Georgia, also remembered “those who have succumbed to the demons of war,” through suicide.

“If you really want to see the true cost of freedom, visit a veteran cemetery, The Wall, numerous memorials across our great country, a retired veterans home, or a VA hospital,” he said. “We continue to mourn their loss, but most of all, we celebrate their lives.”

Intoning the names

Six veterans from American Legion Post 60 took part in the annual Memorial Day intoning of names of Bulloch County’s military service members who have died in wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. Bob Marsh recited the names from World War I; Bill Adams, the names of those who died during World War II in the Atlantic area of operations; Gary Martin, those who died in WWII in the Pacific area. John Daube intoned the names from the Korean War; Randy Brigman, those from the Vietnam War; and Mike Skarhus, those from “current hostilities,” including the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Skarhus, as post chaplain, led opening and closing prayers.

Piano prodigy

Isaac Sherrod, a 15-year-old pianist and homeschooled ninth-grader from the Stilson community, provided the musical prelude, with improvisational takes on patriotic tunes and hymns, to repeated applause. He also performed piano-only versions of the National Anthem as the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard posted the flags and later of the Armed Forces Medley as veterans of each branch stood.

Brenda O’Quinn, regent of the Archibald Bulloch Chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution, also spoke on the meaning of Memorial Day, and the DAR chapter provided coffee and doughnuts prior to the ceremony. Joiner-Anderson Funeral Home and the Averitt Center for the Arts were recognized as event sponsors.

Memorial Day
U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Carson McLellan and Calista Brogdon spend a few reflective Memorial Day moments strolling along the Georgia Southern memorial flag display on Sweetheart Circle on Monday, May 29, 2023. The 570 flags were planted by the Military and Veteran Services office at Georgia Southern University and bear the names and photos of military personnel who died while serving, some who were posted at nearby Fort Stewart and some who were chosen by faculty and staff. McLellan is a recent graduate of the university's Army ROTC program. The display was a popular destination following the official Memorial Day Program at the Averitt Center for the Arts. (SCOTT BRYANT/staff)
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