Sacrifice: Dad steps in line of fire to protect son
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Leon and Marjorie Hickey sit next to one another outside a ...
May 25th, 2009 12:51 AM
Sacrifice: Dad steps in line of fire to protect son
Sacrifice: Dad steps in line of fire to protect son | HamptonRoads.com | PilotOnline.com
Leon and Marjorie Hickey sit next to one another outside a mobile home off Virginia Beach Boulevard on lawn chairs covered with towels because of a morning storm.
It's their son's old trailer, small but neatly landscaped with artificial flowers, an old butter churn and poles flying the U.S. flag and a POW/MIA flag.
Leon's 77, a good-looking man, medium-length gray hair, tall and slender. Marjorie's 83, long white hair, a mother who still can't think of what happened to her sons - and what her husband did - four decades ago without her eyes flooding and turning red.
When he thinks of what happened, he turns his head and stares into the distance.
They're recounting their story, of how they met, how that encounter led to marriage, how Leon's dedication to her family led him to a sacrifice that they think saved a couple of their sons from combat in the Vietnam War.
But it's a story, a commitment, that began well before the war, on New Year's Eve 1956. That part they revel in telling, so they begin there.
Marjorie went to dances every weekend with her parents at a place called Baxter Barn. That night, five decades ago, a family friend called her over and introduced her to Leon.
She thought he was the most handsome man she had ever laid eyes on. Leon liked her, too, so they sat and talked for a couple of hours. She was 30, he was 24, and Marjorie's father wanted everything up front from the get-go:
"Did she tell you she was divorced?" he asked Leon.
She had. She had also told him about her children - eight of them, from 13 years old on down to 3. Leon didn't care.
"He asked me to marry him that night," she recalls, looking over at her husband in the chair, "and I told him no, not until he met my kids. I told him I could replace a man, but I couldn't replace my kids."
Leon looks up: "Oh yes, I understood that."
Leon's father had left his mother with eight children. Any money the kids could make had to be turned over to Momma to keep the family going.
Marjorie had cooked all day that New Year's Eve. After the dance, they went back to her parents' house and ate turkey, collards, potatoes and cornbread. That sealed it for Leon.
Marjorie told him to propose again in two weeks. He met the kids and then asked, rushing her waiting period just a bit. She didn't mind. The children loved him.
On Jan. 12, they drove down to Elizabeth City, because back then a couple could get blood tests and be married the same day in North Carolina.
It was cold, and it snowed on their drive down.
"My windshield wipers broke because of the snow," Leon said, "and we tied strings to the wiper blades."
They rolled the windows down, reached out and worked the wipers with their hands.
"He pulled from the left," she said, "and I pulled from the right."
Leon was on his second stint with the Army, and Marjorie remembers that once they got married, his military pay and benefits ensured that she and the children didn't have to worry. He was an enlisted guy, and they got to be stationed in Hawaii, New Orleans, France.
The kids, almost from the beginning, considered Leon their father, and he thought of them as his own.
The youngest had speech troubles, and Leon sat down with him for more than a year and helped him learn to talk. When that son turned 17, he told his mother that he wanted Leon to officially adopt him. In court, he surprised both Marjorie and Leon when he told the judge one other thing: "I want my Daddy's name."
He became Leon Archie Hickey Jr.
A couple of the boys followed the elder Leon's path and went into the Army. Another was drafted.
Nine years after they married, in January 1966, their son Marvin was on patrol in Vietnam when he was killed by a sniper. The family would never be the same; his death changed the way they reacted to almost everything and altered the minds of several of the men in ways from which they would never recover.
The last letter Marvin wrote was to his father, Leon.
The family returned from France four months early and waited for Marvin's body to come home.
"The government sent him home in a...," Marjorie pauses, her eyes filling and turning bloodshot, "if you can say a casket is pretty, they done it."
She wanted to see him one more time, so she made them open it up. She saw his tattoos: "God Is My Jumpmaster" and "I Love My Mom."
"There was a little bit of blood in his ear, and I made them clean it out," she says.
Sitting in his lawn chair, Leon says nothing. He turns his head to the right, as though punched in the cheek, and stares.
The next year, 1967, Marjorie got a call from an Army inspector general in California. Her son, Billy Ray, had been drafted and was with his Army unit in California, about to deploy to Vietnam.
Billy Ray had intended to stick with his unit, but Marvin's death was on his mind and he got cold feet. He told his commanding officer that his brother had been killed the year before, but he didn't know Marvin's serial number, and the two boys used different surnames.
Rules have changed through the decades, according to the Selective Service System, but the basic premise has always been: When a family member has been killed during military service, other members of the family should be protected if possible.
Marjorie remembers the conversation with the inspector general like this:
Mrs. Hickey, I got a boy here that says his brother was killed in Vietnam, and we have a lot of boys trying to get away with something, so I need to check.
"Yes sir," Marjorie said. "He is my son and Marvin Jr. is his brother. I can get the serial number for you..."
I'm looking at him right now... he's got a dimple in his chin. How else would you describe him?
"He's got two big ears that sticks right out and flaps at you," Marjorie said.
Ma'am, I have no doubt that this is your son.
The Army sent Billy Ray for noncombat duty, but he wasn't over there long when he was on patrol and the man in front of him stepped on a land mine. The man was killed, and Billy Ray's foot was blown off all the way back to his heel.
Leon didn't say much, but he knew the casualties were wrecking his wife and the rest of the kids. And two other boys were about to go. He thought about what he could do.
It was early 1968, and the Hickeys' son Roger Dale was getting sent into combat.
"That's when I volunteered," Leon says.
"He volunteered," Marjorie says, "so they didn't have to go."
"I was always going," Leon says. "She didn't want the kids to go."
Leon was 37. He stepped forward, thinking the Army might take him instead of another son.
Really, Leon says, that was only part of it. He wanted to see if he could find the sniper who gunned down Marvin. Once he got there, at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, he realized that wouldn't have been possible.
"I still had problems," Leon says of his mental state after Marvin's death. "I got problems today."
He looks away again.
He served a year in 1968, came home, went back in 1970, again hoping to keep Roger Dale out of combat.
His unit had just finished building a bridge, and his supervisor asked him to go back and lay mines around it. His orders to go home were in his pocket. That night, a mortar hit his outpost camp and ripped open his leg. A fragment hit him below the eye.
Around that time, Marjorie was over at Portsmouth Naval Hospital for a routine procedure and saw a bunch of men in the hallway on stretchers. She stopped walking when she heard a familiar voice, Leon's.
"That was a heck of a way to get notified," she says.
Sitting in front of Roger Dale's mobile home, the Hickeys explain that their son was never right after Marvin's death. They're not ashamed to tell the truth: Roger Dale turned to alcohol.
"He lost his brother and he never got over it," Marjorie says. "He always had Junior's picture with him."
Tears again swamp her eyes, and she pauses.
But the Hickeys got to live near him for decades; his trailer backs up to theirs in the mobile home park. He suffered from liver problems for years and died of a heart attack late last year.
Billy Ray was never the same, either; Marjorie says he died at 52 of ongoing complications from having most of his foot blown off.
Leon still rarely wears shorts, even on the hottest days, because he's got a scar on his leg and pieces of mortar still in it. He received the Purple Heart but only brings it up if asked.
Memories are his deepest wound: The sports section is the only part of the newspaper he can read because he can't stand to hear about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The one thing I really don't like is taps," he says. "It brings tears to my eyes and pain in my heart because I know what's happening."
Tomorrow, they'll hide their pain and go to the Tidewater Veterans Memorial at the Oceanfront, as they do every year.
He will help with the 21-gun salute. She will sit at a table and write the names of loved ones on small flags and give them to family members.
If it's like other years, a machine shop owner who Leon used to work for will come to the table and give Marjorie two $20 bills: One, he'll tell her, is for the donation can to help buy pins, flags, drinks and food; the other one is for her.
If it's like other years, Marjorie will thank him and wait until he walks away.
Then she'll put her $20 in the donation can, too.
"Each worker carried his sword strapped to his side." Nehemiah 4:18
Guns Save Lives. Paramedics Save Lives. But...
Paramedics With Guns Scare People!
May 25th, 2009 12:51 AM
May 25th, 2009 01:50 AM
That's a very fitting post for Memorial Day.
A lot of good things could be said about that man, but after reading the story, I'm at a loss for words.
May 25th, 2009 02:37 AM
Sounds like there family has given everything they could in support of there country. They should be proud.
"Anyone worth shooting, is probably worth shooting several times."
May 25th, 2009 10:13 AM
Thanks for posting. I'd say more but right now it is kind of hard to see the screen. Must be something wrong with my eyes, everything is kind of blurry.
May 25th, 2009 10:33 AM
And this is only one story of the many thousands out there. "...the home of the brave..."
Duty, Honor, Country...MEDIC
¡Cuánto duele crecer, cuan hondo es el dolor de alzarse en puntillas y observar con temblores de angustia, esa cosa tremenda, que es la vida del hombre! - René Marqués
May 25th, 2009 12:06 PM
Just remember that shot placement is much more important with what you carry than how big a bang you get with each trigger pull.
Texas CHL Instructor
Texas Hunter Education Instructor
May 25th, 2009 11:04 PM
May 25th, 2009 11:35 PM
"Who is to say that I am not an instrument of karma? Indeed, who is to say that I am not the very hand of God himself, dispatched by the Almighty to smite the Philistines and hypocrites, to lay low the dishonest and corrupt, and to bust the jawbone of some jackass that so desperately deserves it?"
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