Legacy remains a year after Fort Mill Marine’s death in Afghanistan
ROCK HILL — In the back of Rock Hill Memorial Gardens, it is the last headstone.
It is simple, gray granite, about 30 inches tall, four inches thick and a foot wide. So many stones in the cemetery are far larger and more ornate.
Conifers separate the section from other parts. The headstone seems alone.
But this headstone carries an inscription, a name that will be remembered forever by thousands who never met the man but honored him because he gave his life for his country a year ago Saturday.
The headstone is decorated – this week of Independence Day and the celebration of America’s freedoms – with 10 small American flags on wooden poles.
There is a tiny Marine Corps flag. There are flowers, wilted under the brutal heat, and what might be the best tribute of all – a half-drunk bottle of beer.
The stone is incredibly solemn, and beautiful, in its simplicity. It has only the following words:
Thomas Dodds Dudley
US Marine Corps
Aug 28 1981
Jul 7 2011
Marine Staff Sgt. Thomas “T.J.” Dudley, 29, was killed in action in Afghanistan. Dudley, who grew up in Fort Mill, was two weeks from the end of his sixth deployment. He left three kids and a wife, a momma and a brother and sisters.
A week after Dudley died in that war, an incredible thing happened. Thousands of strangers turned out to honor him before he was buried in that cemetery.
Dudley’s casket was carried by fire truck from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, along N.C. 160 to the state line.
The route proceeded from there to Tega Cay – where Dudley lived – down S.C. 160 to Fort Mill High School – where the funeral was held – and south through Rock Hill on U.S. 21 and Cherry Road.
All along the way, strangers, throngs of them, reverently holding American flags.
Those people held each other, too. They hugged and cried and saluted that casket atop the fire truck. Dudley, nicknamed “Duds” by his buddies in Fort Mill and the Marines, was a volunteer firefighter, too.
All this for a kid who grew into a man in Fort Mill, then spent the next decade fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan before that final sixth deployment.
Dudley was a crew chief for a helicopter squadron and had a reputation as the best of the best.
Staff sergeant in the Marine Corps is not a rank. It is a badge that translates into “roughest, toughest son of a gun to walk the earth on two legs.”
Staff sergeants such as T.J. Dudley lead younger troops in wars. Non-commissioned officers get orders from regular officers, then rush out into deserts to make sure orders are followed by troops themselves.
Oftentimes, a staff sergeant will take a bullet or shrapnel alongside those grunts he is leading.
“Who knows how many people were inspired by T.J. Dudley, by his service to his country, to maybe do something greater in their lives?” asked Pat Wentling, who knows more than a little about such things. “Maybe somebody thought about doing something for their community or their country. Then did it.”
Wentling’s husband is a Vietnam War veteran Marine. Her son, a buddy of Dudley, is a combat veteran Marine. Her granddaughter is in the Marines and her grandson will be in the Marines in months.
Maybe there should be time Saturday for a thought, or more, about this guy Dudley.
“Truly what this guy gave – his life – should be remembered on the anniversary,” said Ken Kerber, the Fort Mill Fire Department Chief who was part of that unforgettable funeral processional a year ago.
Kerber is a guy who gave up a bank executive job to fight fires and lead men and help others.
“He’s one of us,” he said. “From Fort Mill, from York County. Anybody who saw that spectacle that day will never forget it. It showed the best we are.”
That procession a year ago featured thousands of people taking time to send Dudley off with dignity. Giant American flags were draped across roadways and from cranes. People saluted and held hands over hearts as Dudley’s casket passed by.
“This place we call home, Rock Hill and Fort Mill, York County, is a patriotic place,” said David Guyton, whose day job is Family Court judge but whose part-time gig is National Guard colonel. Guyton is a Marine Corps veteran of the first Iraq War. He still wears a Marines brush cut.
Guyton knows what Marines do in wars. They fight and sometimes die.
“Especially right after the Fourth of July, when we all were so fortunate to realize our freedom in a country so great, this one-year anniversary is a big one,” Guyton said. “We lost a Marine who was one of us.”
Rock Hill and York County will say goodbye Sunday to 160 Army National Guard soldiers headed to Afghanistan. The deployment comes three weeks after three guardsmen from South Carolina died in Afghanistan. Five others were wounded.
Many at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2889 on Rock Hill’s Main Street will help put on that Sunday public ceremony. Many were part of that procession for Dudley a year ago.
“We lost one of our great Americans, and we all owe him a little bit of time in our thoughts,” said Don Vinsack, post commander. “There doesn’t have to be a ceremony for people to remember what Sgt. Dudley gave to his country – his blood.”
No, there are no ceremonies planned for Saturday, to mark Dudley’s death. No politician alighting from an air-conditioned SUV will run his mouth and talk about service while sending others off to fight.
Because wars are fought by regular tough guys from Fort Mill who get married to a woman and never let go.
Marines who raise kids and leave them six times to go to war. Marines who come home for a few months and fight fires as volunteers. Marines who save countries and little kids from those who would send women and children to blow up others with suicide bombs.
Yes, these soldiers and Marines and Navy guys and airmen sure drink ice-cold beers with both hands in between six deployments like T.J. Dudley endured.
That half-empty bottle of beer at Dudley’s grave, it seems right, Vinsack said.
“T.J. Dudley, we all salute you,” he said.
“A hero,” said three guys at the VFW who had fought in combat in Vietnam and seen hell on earth, too. They know war is bombs and bullets. They had a drink in Dudley’s honor.
Just like thousands who turned out a year ago to honor a stranger, when York County showed T.J. Dudley and his family the greatest toast of all – gratitude.
Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 firstname.lastname@example.org
Short URL: http://militaryfeed.com/?p=34519