RALEIGH — Until about two months ago, Donna Willett didn’t know that a living memorial to her father, Lt. Col. Donald E. Parsons, had been dedicated in Raleigh in 1973 by Boy Scouts Pack 344. Nor did she know the pack had taken it with it when it moved in 1987.
Then again, until 2000, she didn’t even know what had happened to her father. But a quiet ceremony Saturday that dedicated a new sapling – the post-1987 fate of the first tree, perhaps fittingly, remains unknown – passed along his memory to another generation of Scouts.
More than 65 people – including Parsons’ descendants, veterans, and current and former Scouts – attended the ceremony that honored the missing, captured and killed soldiers in a war in which their service did not always generate respect.
Asked of her emotions after the ceremony, Willett said: “Pride, more than anything else. Pride that my dad is remembered like this.”
Retired Lt. Col. Bob Matson, as pack master, orchestrated transferring the tree when the Scouts moved from Wade Avenue to Atlantic Avenue in 1987.
This year, he managed to get Donna Willett, her sister Stacy Parsons, and her son Amra Hayslett of Wake Forest to the ceremony. Hayslett brought his two sons, one of them a Boy Scout himself. Also attending was former Scout Alton Coleman, who along with his den mother (and real mother) Beverly set up the memorial 40 years ago.
On a clear but chilly, see-your-breath morning, the event included a raising of the colors by current Scouts, ceremonial shoveling of dirt on the new sapling by Parsons’ daughters, a handful of speeches honoring Parsons and military service members, and, to close it out, a retirement ceremony for two worn-out American flags.
‘Just kind of disintegrated’
Donald Parsons, a career Army officer who earned a Bronze Star in Korea, went back to Vietnam for one last tour. His wife, Pat, didn’t want him to go, but his sense of duty landed him back in Southeast Asia.
The Blowing Rock resident went missing in a helicopter carrying six during a rescue and recovery mission. Deemed missing in action, he was later presumed killed in action. The tragedy left ruin in its wake.
“Our family just kind of disintegrated,” said Willett, who became pregnant with Hayslett at 16. “It was so stressful to not know what happened.”
The hardest hit was Parsons’ wife. According to her family, Pat Parsons never recovered.
“She never got over it. She never could get past it,” Willett said. “And there was not any support back then. We were on an island in a small town where it hadn’t happened to anyone else.”
For Hayslett, her grandmother taught him a valuable lesson, albeit in a roundabout way.
“You can’t reflect on your path with negativity because that will destroy you,” Hayslett said.
‘Went looking for it’
It would be 2000 before an Army program dedicated to finding missing soldiers found a particular helicopter crash site on a mountain in Vietnam. An officer insignia and two of Parsons’ teeth identified the fallen officer and brought long-sought closure, not to mention relief that Parsons died instantly in a crash, not after torture as a prisoner of war.
Twenty-seven years earlier, a 10-year-old Scout and his mother had already paid tribute to Parsons. The two had been interested in the POW-MIA movement, and each had commemorative bracelets. The name on Beverly Coleman’s bracelet belonged to someone who would come home. The one on Alton Coleman’s did not. Eventually, they decided to do something more.
“She felt this would be a good time for us to do something to understand what this was all about, the commitment of these men and what they’d gone through,” Alton Coleman said.
They painted that crabapple tree on May 6, 1973, amid no fanfare or news coverage.
In 1987, the headquarters at Wade Avenue moved to Atlantic Avenue. According to a piece in The News & Observer at the time by columnist Dennis Rogers, only a totem pole, a Boy Scout statue, a flagpole and that tree made the trip.
Alton Coleman missed the re-dedication headed by Matson, the pack master; Coleman had joined the military himself, a U.S. Navy medical corpsman serving in the Marine Corps. Matson lost track of it amid his career working for Progress Energy as well as a career in the Reserves that sent him abroad on active-duty tours.
“When I got back off active duty finally in the summer of 2010, I got back active in Scouting,” Matson said. “I went looking for the tree and the plaque. I found the plaque but no tree.”
Matson tracked down the family and put in motion a plan to dedicate a new tree.
Legacies carry on
Rogers closed his 1987 column by writing, “The cycle goes on,” referring to Coleman’s entry into the military as a way of honoring Parsons. Speakers expressed hope that the youths present on Saturday would pick up similar lessons.
“I think in 1973, (planting the tree) drove home to me what it meant had my father not returned,” Coleman said. “Then as a serviceman I saw firsthand the commitment of the servicemen and -women.”
Along with honorifics toward service – and noting the contrast of today to the harsh reception of service during the Vietnam era – were stories about Parsons himself. They described a man “small in stature” who “seemed 10 feet tall” and who would “not be bullied” to those who got to know his dedication to his men.
Hayslett said “your legacy carries on no matter what.” The idea of legacy proved central to the ceremony. According to her daughter and grandson, the one time that Pat Parsons truly smiled in the years after losing her husband was, as she neared her own death, when Hayslett told her he was having a son, her great-grandson.
Coleman hopes that legacies such as Parsons’ continue to thrive.
“Hopefully it means something to these young Scouts,” Coleman said.
Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland