A 'family hero' of Vietnam War will be remembered at military cemetery

A 'family hero' who died in the Vietnam War will be remembered in a Memorial Day celebration at L.A. cemetery

Monteen Purdie cut the strings off an apron, then starched and ironed them before delicately placing them inside a card for her son.

Almost half a century later, Linda Smith reminded her mother of the gift she gave to Robert in 1967 as he headed to basic training for the Marines — as a boy became a man leaving a mother for war.

"I don't think he got how symbolic that was," Smith, who was 26 when her brother enlisted, said tearfully.

On Memorial Day, Purdie will visit the grave of her son — whom most everyone called David — at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood. It will be her 100th birthday.

He was killed in action Aug. 23, 1968, in Vietnam. Marines will join her family at David's headstone, where they will play taps and present Purdie with a U.S. flag.

"We were blessed to have David," Purdie said.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of U.S. combat troops being sent to fight in Vietnam. About 2.7 million American men and women served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 of them lost their lives during the war, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rex Kern, director of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, will open the cemetery's Memorial Day ceremony with a speech about the importance of honoring Vietnam War veterans.

"These young men and women were thrust into a situation where they were thousands of miles away from home … watching their buddies getting killed and then to come home and have the American public reject them like they did was a real slap in the face," Kern said. "I think it's a long time coming that we honor our Vietnam veterans."

Smith still remembers the pride etched on David's face when he announced at a family dinner that he'd enlisted. Those closest to him knew it wasn't a spontaneous decision.

His childhood friend Bill Wentz said the two had a strong desire to serve. David was one of the first in their group of friends to join the military.

"We thought it was our duty to defend the homeland," Wentz said. "Dave was very gung-ho.... We were all proud of him."

David's enlistment came as a shock to his mother. She wasn't ready to let him go. David, the third of her five children, was 20.

"I thought, David is so young, he hasn't lived here long enough," Purdie said. "I didn't want him to go off to Vietnam. I didn't want anybody shooting at my son."

She rested her hand against her cheek, remembering the short stubble of David's beard as he kissed her goodbye before boarding his flight to Vietnam with chocolate chip cookies she had baked just for him.

Purdie sent dozens of letters to David. He wrote back, telling her about Vietnam and joking about rats as large as cats. He told her he wasn't on the front lines, that he was safe.

One day late in August she came home to find a Marine standing in the family room. Her sister held back sobs as she told Purdie that he was there to deliver news about David.

"Oh, good, you know David," Purdie told the Marine. "Can you tell me about David?"

"And he said, 'Ma'am, David won't be coming home. He was killed in Vietnam,'" she recalled.

Letters came, from childhood friends, from men who served with him in Vietnam. One told her that David had given his life trying to save another man.

More than 1,000 people turned out for David's service.

So many years later, Purdie said she still remembers how her son would turn serious every time he wore his uniform, all business. A Marine.

Wearing a red, white and blue scarf knotted around her neck, Purdie spoke in a low voice roughened by age. She mused about the years of her son's life that were missed — the woman he never got to fall in love with, the children he never got to raise.

Losing him, Purdie told her daughter, left her with a "hurt that never goes away."

The family has kept a framed drawing of David, surrounded by honors including a Purple Heart, and a book of memories they put together after his death, including letters and pictures from his time in Vietnam.

"He's our family's hero," said Laura Smith, David's niece. "Grief is generational, grief lives. He died, but we live with it. There's a void in your heart that never gets filled."

brittny.mejia@latimes.com

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