Community mobilizes to honor Vietnam casualty

Quarter-century after leaving town, soldier is remembered today

May 27, 2000|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

RISING SUN -- Gregory S. Copenhaver, a wide-eyed high-school graduate, set off from here in August 1974 to fight in Vietnam. Yesterday, his remains lay in a flag-wrapped casket, sitting inside a funeral home in this tiny Cecil County town.

Rising Sun hasn't had practice welcoming home war heroes -- at least not recently. But this community of 1,300 has mobilized to pay tribute.

The soldier was killed in the line of duty in 1975, but was listed as missing in action until his remains were identified through DNA testing this month.

Members of the Rising Sun High School Class of 1974 have contacted nearly all of their 144 classmates, urging them to attend a military funeral this morning.

Veterans from the Jerry Skrivanek VFW Post 8185 in Port Deposit are planning to turn out. Some say seeing a fellow Vietnam soldier honored will help them forget how they were treated after returning home in the 1970s.

"It's an opportunity to come home themselves, vicariously," said Steven Fayer, the local VFW's service officer, who is responsible for counseling veterans and their families. "It's providing, for some, the kind of homecoming they were deprived of."

And the Rev. Mack Arnold Sr. is preparing a sermon for today's 11 a.m. service. Twenty-five years ago at Porter's Grove Missionary Baptist Church -- whose motto is "where everybody is somebody" -- Arnold led the first service honoring Copenhaver.

"After 25 years, you forget a lot," said Arnold, who in his 27 years as pastor at Porter's Grove has never officiated at two memorial services for the same person. "I'll talk about the kind of person he was, what his teachers thought of him and how he was a fast learner."

Ten months after enlisting with a recruiter at Rising Sun High School, the 19-year-old Marine rifleman was killed when his helicopter plunged into the Gulf of Thailand. Copenhaver was one of about 250 soldiers sent on an ill-fated mission to rescue the SS Mayaguez, an American merchant ship captured by Cambodian rebels.

Copenhaver was missing for a quarter century, and his mother, his friends and this town had long tried to put the tragedy behind them. That was until May 18, when the Department of Defense announced it had positively identified Copenhaver's skeletal remains at a lab in Honolulu, and was sending them home.

Painful memories

Copenhaver's 69-year-old mother, who lives in Delaware, was at first reluctant to hold another service for her son, who was nicknamed "Frog" by friends, loved motorcycles and dreamed of a military career. She wondered about digging up memories that are mostly painful -- like that of uniformed military officers approaching her house in 1975 to give her news of her son, and her screams from the stairwell when she spotted them.

"Everybody has slowly put this down," said Mills. "Nobody dreamed it would go this far. Now it's all coming back again."

A generation of support

Mills also wondered how many people would show up this weekend to honor Copenhaver.

Bill Meehan answered that question.

Meehan, 44, who graduated with Copenhaver, read about Mills' hesitation in a local newspaper.

"I felt like she thought nobody cared, that nobody was out there from his generation," he said. "I thought I'd get the word out."

Meehan planned to reach all classmates who live within driving distance -- about 80 percent of the class, he said -- to tell them about Copenhaver's service.

"I know people always say nice things after you're dead," said Meehan, who lives in Rising Sun. "But I really think he was the kind of person who was genuine, who didn't have a problem with anybody."

Small town unchanged

Copenhaver's casket arrived at Philadelphia International Airport Thursday morning. The hearse drove it to R.T. Foard Funeral Home just off Main Street in Rising Sun.

Copenhaver is listed as being from Port Deposit -- he grew up there -- but attended church and school in Rising Sun, a town that residents say has changed little in 25 years.

It's the kind of town where, on its face, nothing seems special. Then again, if you're looking for quintessential small-town America, it all does -- the mom-and-pop hardware store, the Steak-and-Shake restaurant, the single traffic light.

Copenhaver becomes the fifth resident of Rising Sun, Port Deposit and Perryville, another nearby community, to have been killed in Vietnam. Altogether, 15 Cecil County residents and 1,014 Marylanders died in the conflict.

Another 2,022 Americans are still listed as missing in action.

Sun staff researchers Dee Lyon and Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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