It took 50 years, but Vietnam veteran Johnny Hulsey of Hall County was not about to give up on an effort to make sure his friend and fallen soldier Willard Winston Croy had the appropriate marker for his grave.
Sgt. Croy was killed in Binh Dinh Province in South Vietnam on January 8, 1970, about a month shy of his 22nd birthday. Croy was recognized for his sacrifice with a Purple Heart, bestowed on military service members who are wounded or killed in the line of duty, but because of a local clerical error, the U.S. government refused to issue a bronze marker for Croy's grave at Gainesville's Memorial Park Cemetery.
"Funeral directors made a mistake on his death certificate and checked the wrong block, so when the paperwork was sent in to the government, they turned it down," Hulsey said. "Ms. Mary, Willard's widow, has tried for years and years and years to get this marker that the government furnishes all veterans, especially the ones killed in action."
In fact, it was Mary Croy who reached out to Hulsey in 2009 to see if her husband's old Tadmore Elementary School classmate and fellow Vietnam veteran could help.
Hulsey said he worked with officials at Memorial Park Funeral Home, but they ran into nothing but dead ends.
"Everything failed, but we kept working and working and sending in forms...and they'd send them back," Hulsey said.
Then, about a year ago, Hulsey had a conversation with longtime local funeral director Jimmy Brewer, who told him he would try to help. Again, even with Brewer's persistence, the effort to have the government provide the marker failed. What Brewer proposed at that point was a private purchase and installation of the marker, so that's what Hulsey did.
"I told him 'order it and I'll pay for it out of my pocket because I owe that to Willard,'" Hulsey said, choking back tears.
Both Hulsey and Mary Croy couldn't help but be emotional when they saw the bronze marker installed this past week, just days ahead of Memorial Day 2020.
"I think it's great," Mary Croy said. "It also lets future generations see there were people that stood up and died. I am sorry that they didn't open the military part [of the cemetery] until after [Willard died] so he didn't get to be over there with the rest of [the veterans]."
Even though 50 years have passed, Mary Croy remembers all too well the day she found out her husband had been killed. She was not quite 18 years old, and the political controversy over the Vietnam War made Willard's death even more difficult for a young widow to comprehend.
"You know, you just started life and it's like it's over. Plus, you were getting all these mixed messages, people marching against the Vietnam War. Then, the letters I was getting from him [Willard] telling me what poor people they [the Vietnamese] were...in the back country," Croy said. "It was just hard watching what was going on."
Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and mandated social distancing rules, Memorial Day 2020 will be much different for Johnny Hulsey who, along with his fellow veterans, typically host a memorial service at Rock Creek Veterans Park in Gainesville to remember those who fell in war and to pay tribute to soldiers who came home but who have died in the past year. It will be a different year for Mary Croy, too, who usually attends a Memorial Day service somewhere to remember her husband. Often she's accompanied by nieces and nephews from the Croy side of the family; she says they've remained close even in Willard's absence.
Still, the fresh bronze marker at Sgt. Croy's grave takes the sting away just a bit this year.
"What a relief," Hulsey said gazing at the the grave. "Just before Memorial Day."
Editor's note: Johnny Hulsey said Vietnam Veterans Chapter 772 helped to finance the marble encasement for Sgt. Croy's grave marker. Additionally, Hulsey said the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fellow members of the Tadmore Elementary School class from paying a group tribute to Sgt. Croy on the date the accompanying video was produced for AccessWDUN.