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Hero? I've got your hero right here.

May 28, 2018

Everyone who knows me knows that if I have one fault, it's that I'm too modest.

That's why it's so uncharacteristic of me to say that this the best Memorial Day story you will read. Ever.

Maestro, hit it:

 

      Unless you remember a column I wrote a few years ago or you are a history buff, it’s unlikely that you have heard the name Dan Bullock or know his story.

      That injustice should change – and it will change if you ever find yourself in the 200 block of West Ash Street in Goldsboro after Memorial Day. That’s when the state, after years of being badgered, cajoled and shamed, will unveil and dedicate an N.C. Highway Historical Marker in his honor.

      That’s a long overdue but small price to pay to someone who paid so much so young – younger, indeed, than anyone else ever did.

 

      Pfc. Dan Bullock is officially recognized as the youngest U.S. serviceman to die in the Vietnam War. 

 

      He was 15.

 

  At 15, my buddies and I were stealing Tabs and Nabs out of the teachers lounge at Leak Street School, breaking into the school's gym to play basketball after hours, or wondering when that giant zit in the middle of our foreheads would go away.

      Dan Bullock was being taunted by his own men, dodging bullets from the enemy - and ultimately being killed by one of them.

      Bullock's story might've been buried with him had it not been for the relentless battle waged by Goldsboro attorney Tommy Jarrett. Without Jarrett's indefatigability, Bullock's story would be known by only a few. Jarrett, a retired Marine, for years fought the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee to get recognition for Bullock, even penning a passionate appeal of its initial rejection. Then, he called me.

 Capt. Tommy Jarrett, former Marine, speaking at the unveiling of the marker for Pfc. Dan Bullock in Goldsboro.

In a chiding, angry, pleading and ultimately persuasive letter dated Oct. 31, 2016, Jarrett wrote, “I am writing again to urge the approval of a highway historical marker for PFC Dan Bullock. ... I understand the hesitancy. After all, (Bullock) – with perhaps the assistance of his Marine Corps recruiter – back-dated his birth certificate to make it appear that he was 18. ... I remind all that at that time, many more affluent, mostly white, persons were using devices, some legal, some not, to avoid the War: some fled to Canada, some obtained college deferments, and some got themselves into the inactive reserves. Dan Bullock volunteered. He undoubtedly knew there was a high degree of probability that he would be an infantryman and would be sent to Vietnam in a combat role. In short, he ran towards the War, not away from it.”

      This dude upped his age not so he could get into a nightclub or drink a six pack with his buddies in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen. He did it so he could go fight for this country. And now his family, friends and admirers have had to fight to get him some recognition, a measly marker.

      They ought to be naming a town for this dude.

      Dan Bullock’s nephew, Nathan Bullock, who was five years younger than he, told me in 2014 about the countless times they played Cowboys and Indians and make-believe war games in the woods out back of their house, about how Dan, always fearless, once ripped his hand so badly on a nail that you could see the white meat. He’d been jumping, from a three-legged chair, up and down in an old abandoned house, trying to reach something in the loft.

      “He just wrapped (his hand) in a T-shirt,” Nathan said, and didn’t quit trying until he reached what he was after – supper.

      “We got three pigeons that night,” Nathan recalled, laughing. “My mom cooked them just like you would a chicken.”

      Dan’s mother died when he was 11, and 6-year-old Nathan’s last memory of him for three years was seeing him standing next to her coffin, sobbing, shoulders heaving. Dan’s father remarried soon afterward, and the family moved to Brooklyn.

      “The next time I saw him,” Nathan said, “he was walking down the street in his khaki Marine Corps uniform. We didn’t even know” he had enlisted.

      He was 14.

      After making it through basic training, Nathan said, Dan “stayed with us while he was waiting for his orders. I remember he had money, and I remember he bought both of us a blue, double-breasted suit for Easter – only he had light blue socks and I had dark blue socks. ... Right after that is when he left.”

      Bullock arrived in Vietnam on May 16, 1969.

      He died June 7.

     

 

      Doesn't your heart hurt just thinking about the fear that motherless 15-year-old child must've felt as he lay in a bunker knowing that death was yards, then feet, then inches away – and then right in the bunker with him? 

      Sullivan Ballou, a Union soldier in the Civil War who wrote one of the most powerful pieces of literature in American history – a letter to his wife a week before he was killed in battle – began a sentence to her thusly: “I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence.”

      I know the same thing. Still, though, I pray even now – 48 years later – that young Dan Bullock somehow found peace and comfort from the Almighty in his final moments.

      He sure as hell didn’t get it from his fellow Marines, probably not even from the three who died in that bunker with him.

      Cpl. Steve Piscitelli, USMC-Ret., told me that the other Marines taunted Bullock, thinking he was slow or stupid.

      What he was, was young, a child. 

“We knew something was wrong with him,” Piscitelli told me when I reached him by phone at his Paterson, N.J., home. “The older Marines who’d returned from combat, when they came back they ... picked on him. ... I had a higher rank, so I would stop them. But I also knew there was something wrong with him, but none of us knew what it was until he was killed.

      “That’s when we found out he was 15,” he said. “He only lasted three weeks.”

      Bullock’s sister, Porter Barnes, said her younger brother was “big for his age, but he wasn’t fat. He was tall. And built. He was always trying to help people.”

      Barnes said she still has letters from her brother, written while he was in Vietnam. “He had the prettiest handwriting for someone who quit school in the seventh grade,” she said.

      Nathan Bullock said all of the letters he received from his uncle ended the same way. “Even in his last letter, he P.S.’ed, ‘I don’t have no holes in me yet,’ ” he said.

      I asked Ansley Wegman, director of the state’s Historical Highway Marker Program, what made it change its mind about the marker.

      “The Historical Marker Program didn’t change its mind,” she said. The advisory committee – consisting of 10 history professors – reviewed the proposal first. 

Jarrett, who identifies as “a hillbilly by birth,” said after it was rejected the first time, he was allowed to resubmit the proposal and make an oral argument. That, too, was rejected, “but the vote was closer.”

      After Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s office confirmed via the Pentagon and the Vietnam Memorial Commission that Bullock was indeed the youngest casualty – allaying the commission’s fear that someone else might later emerge with that distinction – Jarrett made his final, successful appeal to the historical commission.

       Jarrett, who joined the Marines after finishing college but before going to law school, served in Vietnam. He sounds awestruck when talking about Bullock. “I don’t see how he made it,” Jarrett said, “especially given the physical and mental pressure a platoon sergeant would put on you.”

      In the preface of boxing great Jack Johnson’s autobiography, the late sports writer nonpareil Dick Schaap, after listing Johnson’s accomplishments and lamenting that he’d never met him, concluded, “He must have been some man.”

       That, word for word, is what I say about Pfc. Dan Bullock: Even at 15, he must’ve been some man.

A different version of this piece originally appeared in the News & Observer newspaper May 26, 2017.

 

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