Vantage Points

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A Soldier's Story: Gary Blaine Jones

May. 23, 2022

by Greg Massey

Gary Blaine Jones

This soldier’s story is actually two stories, a story within a story. It’s about Gary Blaine Jones, Freed-Hardeman College, Class of ’64, but also about how I learned of him and learned about him. It’s a story of a war and its enduring effects on one family from southern Indiana. More than a story of one soldier, it’s the story of two brothers, one whose life was cut short in war, the other who has lived to a good old age. It’s also about ties that bind into eternity, for these two brothers were born of the same parents but also were born again in water and spirit as sons of the one, true God.

I first learned of Gary Jones while teaching history classes on the third floor of the Gardner Center, in room GC-307. Until the opening of the Brown-Kopel Business Center in the fall of 2003, the history faculty taught classes either in the Gardner Center or in the Milan-Sitka Building. Of all the locations where I taught, GC-307 was my favorite. I requested that the administrative assistants in the Office of Academics assign me that room whenever possible. I liked the shape of the room, how there was a small alcove when you first entered, a place where I could stand unseen while classes watched films. That alcove was there because GC-307 had a recording booth. It was where young preachers could be recorded, particularly in the course, Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. That room was dedicated to one Gary Jones and on the back wall hung his photograph, along with a short biography. Over the years that I taught in GC-307, I pondered Gary’s photograph many times, and read the short bio. It detailed that he had attended Freed-Hardeman College to prepare to be a preacher, that he had volunteered for service in Vietnam, and had been killed in action. On those occasions, I always wondered to myself, “Gary, why were you there? Why did you go to Vietnam?”

After 2003, I never taught in GC-307, but Gary Jones remained in my memory. When I began work on the history of Freed-Hardeman, I intended to do some digging and, if possible, integrate his story into the broader narrative of the school’s story. When I finally started researching the school’s life during the 1960s, I was dismayed that copies of the school’s newspaper, then known as The Sky Rocket, were almost nonexistent for much of this singular decade. The gap in that wonderful and valuable source made it harder to chronicle how pivotal events like the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War impacted students at FHC. Nevertheless, I intended to tell Gary Jones’s story, even if other stories would remain untold for lack of surviving evidence.

In late June 2018, I visited the offices of the School of Biblical Studies, obtained a key that allowed me to enter GC-307, but discovered, to my dismay, that the former recording booth now served as a storage area and nowhere was the photograph and biography of Gary Jones to be found. In addition, the passage of time made me question my memory: Was “Gary Jones” even his correct name? I immediately went to the university archives and searched through copies of the school’s old yearbooks, The Treasure Chest, looking for a photograph that matched the one that once hung in GC-307.  It was late in the afternoon, near closing time, and I had to suspend my search before finding any visual evidence of Gary’s time at FHC.

Once I was back home, I searched through Internet websites devoted to American soldiers who died in Vietnam. There were multiple young men named Gary Jones who were killed in action in Vietnam. The face from the wall of GC-307 did not turn up. Frustrated, I emailed Tom Childers, a go-to person for anyone interested in Restoration History in general and Freed-Hardeman history in particular. By the next afternoon, Tom sent me information about Gary Jones from the 1963 Treasure Chest, which I had not yet examined. One photograph was the portrait that had once hung on the wall by the recording room. Another showed Gary in the front row with members of FHC’s Preachers’ Club. Finally, out of a list of student addresses was Gary’s home information, showing that he was from Evansville, Indiana.

Tom’s information got me headed in the right direction. Hoping to learn about Gary’s family, I decided to search for congregations in the Evansville area. When I contacted the Washington Avenue church of Christ, I heard back quickly from its minister, Stephen Rogers, who had preached at the congregation since 1985. When Stephen began his ministry in Evansville, he was adopted as a “surrogate son” by Gary’s parents, Roland and Margaret Jones. For several years, Roland and Stephen traveled together to the FHU Bible Lectureship. Stephen preached the funeral sermons for Roland, Margaret, and their daughter, Marietta. He was also close to the only surviving member of the family, the Jones’s oldest son, Stan, who now lived in a retirement community in Florida. Stephen offered to arrange a three-way phone conversation so I could talk to Stan.

When we got Stan on the phone, he was in a bus, returning to the retirement community after an outing. Once Stan was aware of why I wanted to interview him, he began to talk, and the memories began to gush out. The three Jones siblings were born three years apart, Stan in 1941, Gary in 1944, and Marietta in 1947. While Stan married and began a career in law enforcement, Gary attended FHC, studied to be a preacher, and earned his associates degree from the junior college. He then returned home, married a local girl, Velma Thompson, and began preaching, securing a position at a small congregation in Wetaug, Illinois.

Up to this point, our phone conversation was not that different from other interviews I’d conducted, in this case a collection of information about a family’s life markers, not very distinct from so many other families. Then Stan began talking about Gary’s military service and death: A story emerged that was anything but nondescript. I was not prepared for the answer to my question, “Gary, why were you there?”

By late 1966, Stan and his wife had a young son. That same year the war in Vietnam intruded into the Jones family’s life with explosive force. Stan received a draft notice, calling him to military service. It was the height of the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam. A draft notice meant two things: basic training and infantry service in the war. The details of the family’s conversations are unknown, but they perhaps discussed how recent changes in the policies of the Selective Service System had placed them in this bind. Beginning in 1965, married men lost their exemption from being drafted, which made both Stan and Gary eligible for the draft. But it was Stan, the father of a little boy, who had been called. At this point, Gary made a crucial choice. To keep Stan from going to Vietnam, he offered take his place and enlist in the army.

It's hard for us in the age of instant access to information online to imagine just how in the dark the Jones family was. For details about the policies of the Selective Service System in Washington, D.C. they were reliant on a local draft board, not always a reliable source of information. What the Jones family did not know was that though husbands were subject to the draft, fathers were not. In fact, fathers were exempt for the entire war. Gary never had to volunteer to serve as Stan’s substitute. As a preacher, Gary himself was exempt from the draft. By the time the family learned that Stan should not have received a draft notice, it was too late for Gary to invoke his own exemption. He had enlisted in the U.S. Army, his papers were processed, and he was scheduled to begin basic training.

After telling this heartbreaking story, Stan transitioned to a brief recounting of Gary’s service in Vietnam, how he had been out with a reconnaissance unit and was on the way to headquarters when he was mortally wounded by a mortar blast. From the time he mentioned Gary, Stan’s voice had been quivering. Now he began to cry. When it was clear that Stan was overcome with emotion and could offer no more, I thanked him for sharing his memories. When Stephen said goodbye to his old friend, Stan was still crying.

Stan’s story was unexpected, and it shook me. It also left me with many questions that I hadn’t thought to ask as he poured out emotions that had been with him for over half a century. But I knew I could not bother Stan again. The emotions were too raw. For his part, Stephen thought “the conversation was a blessing to Stan.” Perhaps it was. It had probably been a long time since he had been able to talk about Gary in such detail.

For me one of the blessings of the Internet is that it allows quick contact with some of the most knowledgeable and outstanding historians in the country. While I would not bother Stan Jones with follow-up questions, I could contact the go-to historian for how the Vietnam War impacted men of draft age and their families: Christian Appy, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of several books, including Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. I emailed Chris, asking if what Gary tried to do was even allowable: Could a brother volunteer to substitute for a brother? “I don’t think so,” Chris responded, “although I’ve met a number of people who believe two or more brothers did not have to fight in Vietnam, so maybe some local draft boards did give hardship exemptions on that basis.” He recommended some books on the draft that I might find helpful.

I did the suggested follow-up reading and could only form tentative conclusions. From its founding in 1917, the Selective Service System relied on local draft boards to carry out policy. Those draft boards had considerable leeway in how they carried out their work. Individual draft boards varied in their knowledge of Selective Service policies. We’ll never know for sure, but it’s possible that when Gary, unaware that Stan was exempt from the draft, volunteered to take his place, the local board in Evansville itself acted out of ignorance and allowed the substitution.

While details of the agreement made between the Jones family and the local draft board will remain unknown, information on Gary Jones’s tour of duty in Vietnam is knowable through databases that record information on the soldiers who lost their lives in the war. He arrived in Vietnam on July 13, 1967, a private first class in light weapons infantry serving in the 101st Airborne Division in Quang Tin province, one of the most hotly contested regions of South Vietnam.

The most important details of Gary’s service come to light from D. Samuel Melchior’s Legacy of War, a book that chronicles the 67 soldiers from Evansville, Indiana, who died while serving in Vietnam. Melchior’s research was born out of his work to rededicate Evansville’s Vietnam War Memorial. From this book, we learn that that Gary performed one of the most harrowing jobs of the war. Small in stature, he served as a tunnel rat, the name given to soldiers who searched tunnels built by the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese guerrillas who, assisted by their allies in North Vietnam, fought to overthrow the American-supported government in Saigon. Tunnel rats crawled through the labyrinthine tunnels on search and destroy missions, looking for weapons and assisting in destroying tunnel networks. Crawling underground, armed with a revolver in case he encountered an enemy, Gary faced multiple potential threats—a variety of booby traps, including grenades, mines, punji sticks, poisonous gas, and even poisonous snakes, as well as possibly being crushed by the collapse of a poorly built tunnel. In one letter to his family back home, he admitted that he had never been so scared in his life.

Gary survived those dangerous missions crawling through underground tunnels. As his brother had recounted, his mortal wounds came when his unit was returning from a reconnaissance mission. The date was October 3, 1967, and the mortar blast severely wounded Gary, the shrapnel blinding his left eye. After initial medical treatment in Vietnam, he was evacuated to a hospital in Japan, where he died on November 28.

In 1974, Freed-Hardeman’s alumni newsletter, F-HC News and Report, announced that a memorial fund had been established to honor Gary’s memory. The fund paid for a videotaping unit in the preaching laboratory that would allow preacher students an opportunity to view and learn from their own sermons. The article gives details about Gary’s passion for preaching. While a student at FHC, he preached at local congregations and accompanied the school’s PR man and primary recruiter, W. A. Bradfield, to his gospel meetings. During the summer back home, Gary and his father, Roland, preached together at a congregation in Dekoven, Kentucky. After graduation, Gary stayed busy in service, preaching at the congregation in tiny Wetaug, serving as a counselor at the Breckinridge Job Corps in Morganfield, Kentucky, and helping at youth rallies and youth camps. When the Gardner Center opened in 1982, the preaching lab that honored Gary’s memory moved from its home in Old Main to classroom 307.

The Jones family always mourned their loss. Amid grief, life went on. Velma eventually remarried, had two children, and settled near Paducah. Stan raised a family, worked as a Kentucky state trooper, and retired to Florida. The congregation in Evansville where Gary grew up, at Bellemeade Avenue, moved to a new location on Washington Avenue. Roland and Margaret remained faithful members all their lives.

On Memorial Day, we honor the dead from our country’s wars. It tends to be a day of general remembrance. We rarely know the individual stories and the losses born by those left behind. Of Gary Jones’s story, we know a few things. A younger brother died because he took his older brother’s place, a sacrifice he made willingly but ultimately did not have to make. The older brother lived to retire in Florida. At the age of seventy-seven, he remembered the loss of his younger brother with tears. Stan’s tears remind us, if we needed a reminder, of how we long for God to bring peace to a world marred by sin and war, that He come dwell with us, and wipe away every tear.