Mount Airy remembers, mourns Sept. 11 victims

Memorial: Two residents of Carroll town will be honored at Patriot Day ceremony today.

September 08, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

On Sept. 10, 2001, William R. Ruth, newly installed commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10076 in Mount Airy, ran the group's monthly meeting for the first and last time.

Today, as the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America approaches, the members of that post will remember him.

They plan to dedicate a Patriot Day ceremony at Pine Grove Chapel in Mount Airy to Ruth, who died Sept. 11 in the attack on the Pentagon.

The program culminates a year in which Ruth's fellow vets have mourned the loss of the former Marine helicopter pilot who survived hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam and served in Desert Storm, only to die in an assault on American soil.

"Like any sad event, you hate to go back and revisit it, but it's a way to tie up loose ends and soften the impact a little bit," said former Mount Airy mayor Gerald Johnson, a quartermaster of the VFW post and a longtime friend of Ruth. "If you try to hide it or put it underneath the rug it makes it worse."

Ruth was one of two Mount Airy residents to die at the Pentagon.

Naval Reserve Lt. Cmdr. Ronald J. Vauk, a 37-year-old father of two who worked in the submarine technology department at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, also will be honored at today's ceremony.

American Legion Gold Post 191 is co-sponsoring the event, scheduled for 3 p.m.

Last week at the VFW lounge, Ruth's friends talked about terrorism, war, Sept. 11 and efforts to mark the anniversary of the attacks. And they recalled Bill Ruth.

Vietnam veteran Dennis Shifflette brought his Bronze Star to that Sept. 10 meeting, at Ruth's request. The group liked to recognize the accomplishments of its members.

"It is hard for us, because we lost one of our own," he said.

Ruth, a 57-year-old former schoolteacher, worked as a chief warrant officer in the Army's personnel offices in the Pentagon. He was among those listed as missing for a week after the attack. During that time, the VFW lounge held a vigil for friends who hoped he was still alive.

One night, a wellspring of emotion poured out from the veterans, leading to a spontaneous tribute.

"I went behind the bar and got everybody's attention," Michael Mills, an Army reservist and a regular at the lounge, recalled.

"I was particularly hard hit because he'd been to my son's going-away party a month before and given him advice on being a helicopter pilot, and I had come to really like the guy."

Mills said that the 20 or so people there took turns sharing stories, thoughts and feelings. Some vented. All raised their glasses to Ruth more than a few times.

"There were full-grown men in there, vulnerable and bringing themselves to tears - not something done with any regularity," Mills said.

"There was a great deal of emotional upheaval, heartache and tragedy. It's a night that I'll never forget. It brought the VFW members closer together."

The VFW also rallied around Ladies Auxiliary member Darlene Claypool, who had lived with Ruth in his Carroll County home for two years before he died.

"It gets harder and harder as Sept. 11 approaches, but you don't want your loved ones to be forgotten," she said. "In the grieving process, you're supposed to move on, but everywhere you go, especially in a small town, they're there."

Claypool met Ruth two years ago after his eldest son Chad's death in an automobile accident.

The same age, both divorced and with grown children, they hit it off immediately. They shared a love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, cruises and his dogs, a black Labrador retriever and two Pomeranians.

Claypool has happy memories of Ruth. "He was fun-loving, kind and understanding, a best friend to everyone."

She said she's still amazed at how many lives he touched - as a military man, a teacher and a ham radio operator.

After a tour of duty in Vietnam, he came home to Ohio and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at Bowling Green University. He moved to Montgomery County and taught middle school social studies for more than 20 years.

He went back to the military, willing to step down from his captain's rank to warrant officer because the Army had the Huey helicopters he loved to fly. He sent his students audio tapes from the Middle East describing his experiences in Desert Storm.

Claypool heard from an Army officer who was with Ruth when he died that his last words were, "Tell Darlene that I love her."

"Those last words, though they make me feel good, it also feels like a knife through my heart," she said.

She still wears his wings on a gold chain around her neck, though her memory of him is just as strong without the physical reminder.

Today, she will see his name on a monument already familiar to her - a pair of memorial stones in front of the chapel where the service will take place.

Her only brother's name is already there - Everett Justice, lost in the Vietnam War.

Vauk's name also will be engraved in the rededication of the stone monument.

Last Thursday, under blue skies, VFW and American Legion officers held a dry run of the ceremony.

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