By Mrs. Martha Yoshida (Leonard Wood)May 7, 2015
A Fort Leonard Wood captain helped repatriate the remains of a Vietnam-era Soldier whose only connection to him is they are Soldiers from the same Missouri town.
Capt. Ryan Ball escorted the remains of Sgt. Rodney Griffin to their hometown of Centralia, Missouri, April 23; more than 45 years after Griffin completed Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood. A memorial service was held in Griffin's honor April 25 at Centralia High School.
Ball, who just graduated from U.S. Army Military Police School's Captains Career Course, was asked by Griffin's widow to assist with returning her husband's remains.
An honor guard from Fort Leonard Wood served as pallbearers at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It was the Family's wish to have local friends and the Centralia Veterans of Foreign Wars conduct the 21-gun salute, pallbearer duties and flag folding at the service and graveside.
Griffin was assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armored Regiment, 25th Infantry Division.
He was declared missing in action May 2, 1970 when the UH-1H helicopter, in which he was a passenger, was forced to land from ground fire in Cambodia.
"I did not know Rodney," Ball said. "But we are connected because we come from the same hometown and donned the same uniform."
Griffin graduated from Centralia High School among a class of 84 seniors in 1968, while Ball received his diploma in the school's same gymnasium 34 years later. Following high school, Ball joined the Army and was assigned to the Old Guard, 3rd Infantry Regiment, from July 2003 to July 2006, where Griffin's legacy continued to be an inspiration to him.
"In my early years, I learned about Rodney only by asking about the story of the street named in his honor," he said. "When I was later stationed in D.C., I went to see Rodney's name on the Vietnam Wall. It wasn't until I began training at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that it came full circle for me."
Ball said that his duty was performed in memory of Griffin and Soldiers like him every day.
"Rodney was my inspiration to keep pushing," Ball said. "Each day was in honor and remembrance of Rodney and to every other hero out there who has not yet returned home to their Family and loved ones. To have this Soldier identified is so personal to me."
Our creed, our solemn promise is not an empty one, he added.
"Until it was finalized, you never wrap it up," said Griffin's wife, Donna. "This was more emotional than when it actually happened, because you're numb and in disbelief and you're still waiting. So now for this to happen 45 years later is like it is not real, and everyone knows that it's a reality. Everyone was able to participate and know the outcome and know that he's back where everyone wanted him in this little town."
Veterans from all over came out of the woodworks, organizations and Families too -- it is the closeness of this town -- the Families stick together, Donna added.
"Today was a wonderful day for our Family and friends. Seeing so many young people with the flags and patriotism just warmed my heart, and I am very humbled," Griffin's brother, Darryl Griffin, said. "Thank God Rodney is home, finally. At least we know where he is at. My parents are gone. My older brother is gone. I was kind of the last man standing. It's a bittersweet day."
Darryl said he and his Family attended many update meetings over the years to locate his brother.
"I would tell anybody who has a Family member missing to give their DNA so that they can identify in case something happens to their loved one," he said. "Thank God we have people out there who do that. They don't give up. We don't give up, either."
"Our Family thanks everybody from the bottom of our heart for bringing my brother home," Darryl said.
"People were showing me their MIA (Missing in Action) bracelets today, and I got mine out, because I hadn't worn it for quite a while," Donna said. "Now we can put them away or put them in a remembrance, because we don't need them anymore. We never dreamed that it would, but hoped that it would happen. It can happen."
The memorial service was followed by a private graveside service at East Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Mexico, Missouri, where Griffin is interred. More than 1,000 people gathered at the high school and thousands lined the streets from Centralia to Mexico to welcome Griffin home.
"I want people to remember him as a real person," said Sherry Medley, Griffin's classmate. "He is more than a statistic and more than a number. Rodney remains frozen in time, young and good looking. He did not get to come to class reunions, and I'm sure he would have been there. Instead, he served his country and made the ultimate sacrifice."
Ball has set up a fund for Griffin's Family through the Centralia VFW Post 6276 at www.gofundme.com/nlvqgk, to offset the Family's travel costs, build a memorial or for the Family to attend a second memorial service, which is slated to take place in Washington, D.C., later this year.