The Donlons and Gold Star parents Toni and Craig Gross of Florida Courtesy of Wreaths Across America
By Anne Gabbianelli

“We have participated in hundreds of events over the past 50 years of our marriage, but none as meaningful as our 10-day journey from Harrington, Maine to Arlington National Cemetery with the Wreaths Across America Convoy in 2017,” says Col. Roger Donlon and his wife Norma, who speak collectively about their respect for Wreaths Across America (WAA), headquartered in Columbia Falls.

That’s why the Kansas couple came back to Maine last month for the dedication of the Vietnam Room in the WAA History & Hospitality House. The 1820s home, one of the oldest in the community, was acquired several years ago and is located next to their national headquarters in Columbia Falls. The goal is to restore history while continuing to teach, says Karen Worcester, executive director of Wreaths Across America.

“The house had been empty several years when we acquired the property,” she says. “We were pleasantly surprised at its good condition.” Each room will be decorated to represent a period in US history associated with a military conflict. Col. Donlon, the first American soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1964 during the Vietnam conflict, was honored again while visiting WAA.  

“We hope the Vietnam gathering room dedicated in Roger Donlon’s name will honor all Vietnam-era veterans and teach all of us more about that difficult time in our nation’s history, thus supporting WAA’s mission to Remember, Honor, Teach,” Worcester said.  

Worcester calls this History & Hospitality House an extension to the national museum nestled in the small community on Maine’s east coast. “For people visiting, it’s a step back in time and a hands-on learning experience.”

At the October ceremony, she continued in a tearful voice in introducing the iconic military couple, “The Donlons to me represent so much of a history… but the courage and character, they are the best people I know. You both have amazing stories. Norma is a Gold Star wife … and has an incredible life story, and Roger exemplifies all that’s good in this country.”

Standing tall, sporting his mask and aided by a cane, Col. Donlon watched as artist and Gold Star father Craig Gross unveiled a painting hung over the mantle of the young Green Beret. In response, in his soft, aged voice, Donlon said, “We’re only young once,” which brought on a chuckle throughout the room. The colonel kept the moment light hearted, noting one of the medals he is wearing in the portrait, saying, “This medal for good conduct was the hardest one for me to earn.”

In an earlier phone conversation from the Donlon’s Kansas home, the colonel said, “It’s embarrassing. I think it should be named in honor of Norma,” showing respect for his wife who has been by his side throughout his career stateside and abroad. As if on cue, Norma chimed in, “We find equally dedicated people and each place has its own unique take on patriotism, but to find people like the Worcesters is rare to the depth and breadth of the impact they have made. We are very proud of our association with them and we consider that a blessing.”

The couple offered a lively conversation about our nation’s military conflicts. Roger was enlisted in both the Air Force and Army and in 1959 he was commissioned as an Infantry Officer. 

“My first deployment was in 1964 with Special Forces. Our mission was to train the Vietnamese… a Civilian Irregular Defense Force (CIDG) at Camp Nam Dong in the mountains near the Lao border. It was situated on the Ho Chi Minh trail and caused an impediment for the North Vietnamese Army as they marched to the south. Our battle was the first where the North VN Regular Army joined forces with the guerrillas from the south and attacked an American outpost!”

As a result of this battle, Col. Donlon became the first American soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his own life above and beyond the call of duty, on 6 July 1964.”

Reflecting on the history of wars in our nation, he shared, “Many wars are driven by politicians, commerce, trade, economics, greed, religion and ignorance — we just don’t know our neighbors. We need to look before we leap, study other countries and cultures and languages, and try to understand what’s in their best national interest and as well as ours.”

Norma added, “All wars are driven by politics — soldiers don’t make the decision to go to war.” This stoic woman speaks from experience. At the age of 22, she became a widow when her first husband, John Irving, was killed in action in Vietnam, but the tragedy of his death did not stop there. “California was a hotbed of dissent against the Vietnam War and after every award ceremony (John was a recipient of the Silver Star), the newspapers would run a column and the late-night phone calls would begin… ‘your husband got just what he deserved!’ and then the person would hang up.”  

 She claims she “accidentally” met Roger. “I was on a flight to visit my in-laws — it was the beginning of the good, the bad and the ugly… my feelings confused me… I did not want to feel anything… I was going through my life numb.” The colonel recalls, “My plane was delayed — the delay turned out to be a pair of good looking legs and the only seat left was next to me. She had to sit there for the 19 minute flight and then it took me three years to catch her after that. Now we are celebrating over 50 years of marriage,” he shared with a tone of pure satisfaction.

As for being a military spouse, Norma shared, “In my generation, most soldiers’ wives were active partners in their husband’s career. Today, many wives and now husbands of our military have their own careers. We also have paid employees of the Department of Defense who take the place of helping families and coordinating events so wives/husbands no longer have this role.”

When reflecting on life in the battlefield and beyond that earned Roger Donlon endless awards and decorations, he simply replied, “What we are is God’s gift to us… what we become is our gift to God.”

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