Chester, Illinois — At a cemetery in Illinois, Perry Dotson is 50 years late for the funeral of Army Pfc. Leonard Nitzsche. Lt. Dotson was Leonard's platoon leader in Vietnam, when, in April 1970, their group was attacked and Leonard was killed. They loaded his body on a helicopter and immediately, the platoon went back to the war.
"That was the extent of our grieving. And it just hit me one day, I woke up and I thought, 'I never had a chance to say thank you.' Maybe I just needed some finality," Perry said.
When Perry mentioned this pilgrimage to some of the other guys in his platoon, he found out something he hadn't considered before: That he wasn't alone and there were others who felt the exact same way.
So, they came, too. Tim Roland flew in from McAllen, Texas. Ernie Levesque drove out from Springfield, Massachusetts, and Glenn Fox came from Newport, Nebraska. On arrival, they met Leonard's sister, Linda, at the cemetery. Everyone gathered to pay their respects to Leonard.
"That's why this is so important to us today, because we never got to do this when it happened," Glenn said.
But like a lot of Vietnam vets, especially, they find it hard to mourn the loss of a fellow soldier, without also mourning their own survival.
"My job was to bring Leonard home, and I didn't do that," Perry said.
"He gave something I didn't have to. And I wonder every day why," Ernie said.
The guilt is relentless, which is another reason they're here.
"I'm hoping it helps me. I think it will," Glenn said.
After the cemetery, Leonard's family and friends held a reception. About 100 people showed up offering gentle hugs and hearty handshakes for Leonard's army buddies. Their message was clear: his death was not their fault and they were glad they survived.
Grieving a loss can be delayed, but it cannot be denied. People have to feel the pain, share it with others and then tuck it in a pocket to carry with them forever. That's real closure. Not forgetting, but rather finding peace in remembering.