As the youngest child in her family — and the only girl — Melba Jean Jones Dobson looked up to her four brothers.
She was especially close to her brother Gerald, whom she describes as kind, humble and optimistic. She says he was a “free spirit” and could find humor in most anything.
She still speaks of Gerald in the present tense — even though more than four decades have passed since he died in combat in the Vietnam War.
“It still hurts,” she said. “He’s a wonderful, beautiful man.”
Dobson said Gerald was killed in action on Dec. 4, 1968, at the age of 21. His body was returned to Effingham County eight days later and he was buried in Rincon Cemetery on Dec. 16. Three days after the funeral, Dobson gave birth to her son Gerry, named after her beloved brother.
Willie Gerald Jones never got to meet his namesake nephew. And his life was cut short before he could marry his fiancée Lori.
“The first thing he had said he wanted to do when he got back (home) was take a hot shower. Then marry Lori,” Dobson said with a smile.
Dobson joined her brothers Curtis and Bobby Jones for a ceremony Sunday hosted by American Legion Post 209 and the board of the Effingham Veterans Park. Families of the 10 Effingham servicemen who died in the Vietnam War were recognized with Gold Star certificates from the Department of Defense, thanking them for the sacrifice they made for the country.
“To the families,” said state Rep. Jon Burns, “we certainly owe you a debt of gratitude, because of the loss and the memories that were never formed in those years afterwards. But those memories of the years prior are precious.”
Joining the Jones family at the ceremony were Ira Mae Black, who accepted her family’s Gold Star award in memory of her brother Frankie Young Jr., and Post 209 Commander Richard Saxon, who represented the family of his stepbrother James H. Bush Jr.
Along with Bush, Jones and Young, the servicemen from Effingham County killed in the Vietnam War were Charles J. Evans, James D. Fox, Henry Mauzon Gnann, James A. Lanier, John N. Morris, Roosevelt Wallace and David W. Windsor Jr.
“I can tell you, the names on this list will always be giants in my mind,” said Burns, one of the guest speakers, along with state Rep. Bill Hitchens and Sen. Jack Hill.
Hitchens, a Vietnam veteran, shared his story of enlisting in the Marine Corps along with four of his high school buddies on April 29, 1965. He said the mother of his friend Kenneth “Jack” Deavers had to be convinced to let her son join the Marines.
“Finally his mother gave in and signed because he was going anyway,” Hitchens said. “She wanted him, if he went, to go with all of us.”
Hitchens said Deavers was killed in action on Feb. 7, 1967, just three months before they were scheduled to rotate home. Another of his high school friends was shot in the leg in Vietnam and “was crippled for the rest of his life.”
Hitchens’ career in state government included serving as Georgia’s first director of homeland security. He often traveled to Washington, D.C., in that role, and said he “always” visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see his friend Jack Deavers’ name on the Wall.
“Nobody in my family was killed in Vietnam, but I think I have a sense of what it means to be a Gold Star person,” Hitchens said. “He will forever live in my heart, as well as many others who died.”
Sunday’s Gold Star ceremony was the conclusion of Effingham’s annual Veterans Day program, which was cut short by rain on Nov. 11. The special guest that day was Gen. Claude Kicklighter, the director of the Department of Defense’s program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.
Kicklighter had been in the process of giving families their Gold Star certificates when rain started falling at Veterans Park.
“As he was handing out the certificates, we were blessed with what he called tears from heaven,” said Veterans Park Vice Chair Lamar Crosby, who served as master of ceremonies.
Crosby, himself a Vietnam veteran, said the Gold Star presentations are one step in righting a wrong from years ago.
“This is just another opportunity to do something that this nation didn’t do at the time of the events in Vietnam,” Crosby said. “That is, to say ‘thank you’ to our Vietnam veterans and to honor those from our community who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”