In Memory, Forever
EVELETH — Diane McComesky vividly recollects her late-husband’s words as they stood together at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“I remember him touching the names (of buddies lost to the war) and seeing his reflection on The Wall, also,” she recalled. “I remember him wondering out loud how many vets succumbed to Agent Orange or injuries after the war was over. He said, ‘Honey, I wonder how many vets passed away as a result of their service in Vietnam.’”
Neither of them ever thought, during their two visits to The Wall, that George Ellis McComesky would be one of them.
The highly decorated Marine veteran died July 6, 2013, at age 69, of complications from ischemic heart disease, an effect of exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War.
Although a heart attack followed by a catastrophic neurological event during triple bypass surgery that forced his family to let him go came on quickly during a 24-hour period that July, George’s doctors explained that his heart condition had been years in the making, said McComesky, of Elliot Lake-Eveleth.
George knew he had been exposed to Agent Orange. He was a “grunt” in the Marines, “in the forefront of everything,” McComesky said. “He had lots of jungle time,” where the defoliant was sprayed.
He had been diagnosed with several spots of skin cancer, and “at the time of his death, he was eligible for 70 percent VA (Veterans Affairs) disability,” she said. “He was in the middle of the process to claim additional due to Agent Orange exposure.”
An indemnity claim through the Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed that his death “was a result of his wartime service,” she added.
George McComesky, who had always been so proud of his service, yet very humble, joined a new rank — those whose deaths occurred later, off the battlefield.
His widow thought about those two emotional visits to The Wall — the first time for both of them in 1996, and again in 2007 — and remembered the image of her true love and husband of a quarter century reflected in the black granite.
It’s an extremely moving place, she said. And yet, “walking up to it, you feel like you’re light. It’s difficult to explain. It’s comforting, but chilling.”
George, and countless others whose deaths were hastened by their wartime service, didn’t seem to have a place of their own to be recognized.
That all changed one day last December as McComesky was paging through a veterans booklet and came across information on the In Memory program.
There was, indeed, a way to pay respect to veterans like George.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund’s In Memory honors Vietnam vets whose lives were cut short as a result of their service in war, but who are not eligible for inscription on The Wall under Department of Defense guidelines.
During and after the Vietnam War, the Department of Defense assembled a list of soldiers for inclusion on The Wall who had been killed or went missing in action.
According to VVMF spokeswoman Heidi Zimmerman, “In 1982, when the memorial was founded, no one knew that veterans would continue to die because of their service.”
In Memory, however, recognizes those whose deaths — from things such as cancer, diabetes, post-traumatic stress disorder-related events, Parkinson’s disease, and ischemic heart disease — merit admittance into the program.
Agent Orange-related cancers account for the majority of those inducted into the program.
Since the initiative began in 1999, more than 2,800 Vietnam veterans have been honored.
The program is also a way for such veterans to be recognized at the National Mall, where a yearly ceremony is held at The Wall for In Memory inductees, and where a plaque reads: “In Memory of the men and women who served in the Vietnam War and later died as a result of their service. We honor and remember their sacrifice.”
McComesky immediately sent in an application for George. According to a confirmation letter, she would be notified of the program’s determination by March. “I heard back less than 30 days later,” she said.
George McComesky had been accepted.
“It’s such a great honor,” said the Marine veteran’s wife, who was looking forward to attending the 18th annual In Memory Day celebration June 19 to recognize George and 311 other new honorees.
Family members are invited to say their loved one’s name, which “I was going to do,” she said.
However, on April 16, McComesky was severely injured in a motorcycle accident near Ely, and restrictions during her recovery kept her from flying or traveling long distances in a vehicle.
It was heartbreaking to cancel, she said. “I cried all day.”
But she now has an annual yearbook featuring photos of all the honorees to hold onto, along with a DVD of the ceremony. And McComesky, who has connected with some In Memory families on social media, said she plans to attend future ceremonies.
“This is something George would be so proud of,” McComesky said.
George McComesky “never bragged” about his service, despite receiving a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for battle wounds.
But the Toledo, Ohio native, who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1962 at age 17 — serving with the 4th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion during the Vietnam War — was happy to share war stories with others.
“He talked with anybody. He easily talked about exactly what happened to him,” McComesky said. “He talked about the massive gunfire, how a fellow Marine was shot in front of him;” about being shot himself and then suffering a punctured lung after a Viet Cong stabbed him in the side with a bayonet; about his lieutenant shooting down the enemy soldier and saving the young Marine’s life.
George often visited schools to talk with kids about his experiences in Vietnam — a living history lesson for the students. In fact, “he was a favorite show-and-tell” for his nieces and nephews, McComesky said.
George was discharged from duty in 1972 and later became a St. Louis County deputy sheriff. He loved to golf and hunt and fish, and served as a course marshal for The Quarry at Giants Ridge golf course.
“It’s amazing how many people tell me how much they still think about George and what an influence he had in their lives,” McComesky said. “When he walked into a room, the room would light up.”
During the year before he died, George had taken it upon himself to reconnect with old buddies, including those from Charlie Company. McComesky witnessed how much people admired her husband. “
It wasn’t that he was just put on a pedestal after his death. He knew he was loved by so many before he died,” she said.
George Ellis McComesky would be pleased with his recent honor, she added.
“I wish he was here to see this. ... I think it is also important to let others know that if they have loved ones who have passed away due to service-connected injuries or complications from serving in Vietnam, they should apply as well” to the In Memory program.
“Our family will continue to honor George in every way we possibly can,” she said.