Remains of Korean War vet returning to Texas

November 8, 2011 9:20:52 AM PST
There's a tombstone in the Willow Springs Cemetery in Athens marked for Sgt. 1st Class Benny Rodgers. Unlike the headstones on other graves, this one faces west instead of east.

Tradition for Christian graves is to face east to west, with the headstone at the eastern end. Rodger's tombstone faces west because there is no one beneath it.

But that will change this week, as Rodgers' remains return to his native soil after more than 60 years.

Rodgers was one of more than 1,000 casualties at the Battle of Unsan in the Korean War, and for more than half a century, his family knew little of his fate beyond a final letter he sent home.

"It is a lot better over here, but it's not over yet," the 20-year-old soldier wrote in the letter dated only two days before he was declared missing in action. "Please excuse this writing `cause I'm sitting in a little hole . and using my rifle stock for a desk as usual. Well, I've got to go so answer soon."

Since Rodgers' parents received that letter, they've both passed away. His mother died only three years ago, missing her son's homecoming.

"We're so happy to be able to take him over there and put him in the cemetery with his brother, his sister, his mother and his dad," said Ruth Davis, Rodgers' niece. "At the same time, it's so sad because he was only 20 years old. He didn't even have a chance to live his life."

Mrs. Davis said she was only 20 months old when news of her uncle's death reached the family, so she never knew him, but she heard stories of him from friends and family.

Her mother, she said, often spoke fondly of her missing son.

"My grandmother always referred to him as her good kid," she said. "She was proud of what he did and that he served his country."

Rodgers' body will be flown from Hawaii, where the military stores and works to identify remains, to Dallas on Thursday morning and will be escorted back to Tyler.

Capt. Adrian Vasquez has worked to put together the arrival and transport.

He said this soldier's return to his home is a special moment for him, as well.

"I wanted to do something unique and meaningful," he said. "Everyone knows somebody who's passed away in some conflict we've had, and I wanted to be a part of that."

Vasquez said he's been in contact with cities and towns along U.S. Highway 175 to set up escorts along the way. Several police and fire departments have agreed to line the highway and escort the soldier home, he said.

Mrs. Davis said the remaining members of Rodgers' family, which include nieces, nephews and cousins, can take some solace in what the Army's work to identify him turned up.

She said for years, the hardest part for Rodgers' relatives was not knowing what happened or how he'd died, as stories from other soldiers who survived the war are rife with accounts of torture and starvation.

That was not the case for her uncle, she said.

The remains show he most likely died of a gunshot wound to the head, she said.

"There's no way to know if it was execution style or if he was running and got shot in the back of the head," she said. "The fact that it was a bullet wound to the back of the head tells me that his death was probably fast."

Rodgers return home is a "remarkable thing" after all these years, she said, but there are many other stories like his yet to be finished.

Mrs. Davis spoke glowingly of the work done by the Army in identifying and returning the soldier but noted that there are thousands of other Korean War soldiers killed or missing in action whose families are still waiting.

"There were actually close to 8,000 soldiers that are missing or unaccounted for in North Korea," she said. "People need to know there are still other remains over there, there are still other soldiers waiting to come home."

Mrs. Davis said she wishes her grandmother, Rodgers' mother, was live to see her son's return, but she took solace knowing that they've already been reunited.

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