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50 years after his friend died in Vietnam, Burris creates memorial at West to honor alumni

Born only a few days apart, Danny Burris and his twin cousins Donny and Ronny Tucker were inseparable growing up in the Ridgecrest community.

“We grew up like triplets,” Burris recalled of his childhood.

After they graduated from West Stanly High School in June 1969, Burris and the Tucker boys did what so many other young people were doing at the time: they enlisted in the military, specifically the Marine Corps, to serve their country.

While Burris, who’s 69 and lives in Locust, served from 1970 to 1974 as an avionics technician, where he spent time in Quantico, Virginia and met Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California at the time, Donny and Ronny both traveled to Vietnam to fight on the frontlines during the war.

Serving as a machine gunner, a position that is quick to receive enemy fire, Donny was killed in action on Oct. 10, 1970. He was less than two months shy of his 20th birthday. Burris was in boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina when he got the news; Ronny made it home to Stanly after his brother’s death.

Burris dealt with feelings of guilt after his service, knowing one of his best friends would never be coming back.

“I never saw combat, but I still got guilt because I lived and he didn’t,” he said. “You can’t explain why you walked away and somebody else didn’t.”

Donny Tucker’s name on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., overlaid with pictures of Tucker. A 1969 graduate of West Stanly, Tucker was killed in Vietnam a year later. Photo courtesy of Dan Burris.

As a way to honor his friend, and the other West Stanly graduates who were killed in action in Vietnam, Burris approached the school’s masonry instructor Steven Huneycutt last year about creating a memorial beside the flagpole. The idea had been on his mind to create some sort of memorial for the past decade. Burris told the school that the memorial would be a gift not just from him but from the Class of 1969.

While Huneycutt, who is also a West Stanly graduate, is used to getting requests from people in the community about helping with various projects, this offer was different.

“I was like, ‘Oh man, this is awesome,’ ” he said when he learned about the memorial. He thought it was a perfect opportunity for students — many who likely don’t know much about what happened in the 1970s — to learn about how the Vietnam War personally affected people in their community.

“It was just an honor,” that Burris thought of him to help construct the memorial, Huneycutt continued. “I was very glad he came to me and even considered me.”

Burris received roughly $3,500 in donations from more than 30 people who felt moved to contribute. He figures that without the donations, the project would have cost around $2,800. He estimates that the construction ended up costing around $800.

With the aid of Huneycutt and his students, construction began right before Halloween and finished Tuesday. Huneycutt and his class erected the brick column while Locust Monument built the roughly 200-pound granite plaque, which displays the names of the fallen soldiers. Aside from Tucker, the others listed were all members of the U.S. Army who died in Vietnam. They are: Larry Hathcock who graduated from West Stanly in 1968 and died in 1969; William Lambert who graduated in 1965 and died in 1966; and Larry Turner who graduated in 1965 and died in 1967.

The veterans memorial plaque lists the names of four West Stanly alumni who were killed in action in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Steven Huneycutt.

The granite sign below the plaque reads: “West Stanly High School Alumni Killed In Action Vietnam War” followed by “All Gave Some….Some Gave All!!!”

“I was really proud of the way the school came behind us and worked with us, especially Steven Huneycutt,” Burris said.

Burris is now working with the school’s JROTC and instructor Maj. Wallace Reed to create a brick garden, which will run from the sidewalk to the memorial. Though not ready yet — the JROTC is working on order forms and identifying a brick supplier — in the near future, people will be able to purchase bricks as tributes to military veterans who graduated from the school. Burris hopes to have 100 bricks ordered and laid by Memorial Day next year.

A traditional garden will also be created around the memorial. Burris has also worked with Principal Anne McLendon to set up a computer inside the school with biographies of the soldiers killed in action.

“The newly erected Vietnam memorial at the front of the school is a beautiful, dignified reminder of former graduates who have died for our freedom,” McLendon said in an emailed statement. “These men served out of honor for our country and we should never take this for granted. I am most appreciative of Mr. Burris who passionately planned this project along with Major Reed and Mr. Steven Huneycutt. May we always remember our men and women who served and continue to serve this great nation we are blessed to live in.”

The plan is to have an official dedication service for the memorial on Memorial Day next May.

For Burris, the purpose of the memorial is two-fold: “It’s in honor of the guys that are laying there that didn’t get to finish life, but it’s about educating the youth to respect what they don’t know and the freedom that they have.”

His goal was to complete the project by Veterans Day, which to him, is all about honoring those armed forces members, like Donny, who died in service to their country.

“There’s a pride that I have for a veteran that most people don’t respect anymore. It’s not because I was one, but I know what they went through,” he said.

Even though they’re gone, the memorial will allow Donny and the three other fallen soldiers to live on in the memories of current and future students and staff.

“He didn’t have these past 50 years, those other guys didn’t either, but they’ll be there after I’m gone,” Burris said.

 

 

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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