We will bury a patriot this week. I was deeply saddened to hear of Gary Clemons unexpected passing. I have known Gary most of my adult life and we became very close over the past decade. Gary, affectionately known as “Clem” to his buddies, was a vet’s vet. He placed his fellow veterans and their well-being first and foremost in his life right behind his family.
He proudly served with the 199th Air Mobile in Vietnam in 1969. He was married when he was called to duty and his wife Diane stood strong by his side while he served. Their bond strengthened not only during Vietnam but more importantly, after he returned home. Clem shared many stories with me through the years. I had the absolute honor of escorting him on two trips to Washington, D.C. The first was the 2011 Jasper County Freedom Flight where Clem was joined by nearly 100 of his fellow Vietnam Vets. He spoke of the complexities of Vietnam and the emotions it generated. He lost 12 of his fellow soldiers from his company while in Vietnam. He struggled with survivors’ guilt like most did and pledged his fellow veterans would receive their proper respects both while living and in their passing. He followed through on that pledge by serving on the local American Legion Honor Guard for nearly 40 years and participated in hundreds of graveside services. He was a constant presence in all things veteran related in Jasper County.
Our second trip to D.C. together was last year during Veterans Day. It was the 100th Anniversary of World War I, and we had just finished an hour-long ceremony at Arlington Cemetery. I looked over at Gary and noticed he had tears running down his cheeks. I asked, “You OK Clem?” and he quietly answered, “Yes, it’s just tough to look out here and see all of these tombstones and know that most of them were never given thanks for their service. They never got to find their peace. I’m thankful I have.” We later made our way to the Vietnam Wall where he gingerly placed his fingers on the names of his brothers who had perished and were listed on the wall. “It gets a bit easier each time” he stated, “but never easy.” As the tears reappeared, both his and mine, I nodded my head in solemn and silent agreement.
It was a gut punch when I received the news of his passing Monday morning. I know the entire Legion family, Elks crew, the Clemon-Maki group and his breakfast club all felt the same. Our hearts go out to Diane, his children and extended friends and family. Clem was a very special man who carried a positive vibe with him wherever he went. I will miss his corny Ole and Lena jokes, blaring Vietnam Vets radio at full blast and his infectious laugh and friendship. And, after the ceremony, we will hoist one in the air in his honor followed by his favorite phrase “my belly is full and my pants are still dry, its probably a good time to go home.”
RIP warrior. You are already missed here, but I’m guessing many glorious reunions have already taken place there. Enjoy your new home and your new peace Clem. You’ve earned both.
Until we meet again...