Etched in memory
A Gold Star Families Memorial Monument will be dedicated during a ceremony at Florence Veterans Park on Veterans Day. Etched on the back of the memorial is an image depicting a flag being presented to a mother or widow or daughter of a fallen service member. Its intent is to pay tribute the sacrifice made by family members. The image evokes great emotion and captures perfectly the debt owed to loved ones for their great loss.
BOB SLOAN Editor
There are no faces on the photo etched on the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument. It was intended that way. There are two pairs of hands: the gloved set of a service member and the other of a woman – wife, mother or daughter. Passed between them is a tri-folded American flag. The background is littered with the gravestones of soldiers, guardsmen, sailors, Marines and airmen, a stark and poignant reminder of the cost of our nation’s freedom.
If a photo could speak, this one would offers these heartfelt words:
“On behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”
The photo was not taken at a funeral service. It was staged. Widen the photo and you will discover the hands, all four of them, are veteran hands. They are familiar with one another. They have done this before.
The hands belong to Eddie Collins and Peggy Dearing Moore.
Collins and Moore played integral roles in the creation of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument. When it was decided to have a photo taken of a flag presentation for the monument, Collins all but insisted it would have to be the hands of he and Moore in the photo. Not a soul would or could argue with his suggestion.
It was 48 years ago that Collins, then a 22-year-old wet-behind-the-ears Army solider, escorted the body of Dearing Moore’s first husband, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Phil Dearing, to his hometown of Florence. Dearing was killed May 19, 1971, during his final mission in Vietnam. He was buried nine days later during a service at Central United Methodist Church.
It was Collins who presented a tri-folded American flag to a grief-stricken Dearing Moore and spoke to her the consoling words of a thankful and grateful nation.
Not surprisingly, neither can remember many of the details of that day in the spring of 1971.
“It’s all pretty much a blur,” admits Collins, who said he was completely focused on trying to contain his emotions and “not screw things up.”
Collins and Dearing had been very close friends since childhood. Their families were very close. It was Claude Dearing, Phil’s father, who had requested that Collins escort his son’s body home.
With tears welling in his eyes, Collins said a wave of memories flooded his mind as he presented the flag to Dearing Moore a second time during the reenactment for the photo.
“That was one of the hardest things I will ever do in my life,” he said. “I had probably been to only two or three funerals in my life, maybe not even that many, and here I am having to travel with the body of one of my best friends so that it can be returned to his family. I was told to not show any emotion, but that was just impossible.”
He remembers the instructions given to him at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware while awaiting the commercial flight that would take him and the body of his best friend back to Florence.
“I sat in uniform on that plane, knowing that Phil was in a casket in the cargo bay and his family was waiting for him,” Collins said. “I think I practiced reciting those words, ‘On behalf of a grateful nation…’ about a thousand times on the way home. I just wanted to make sure I got it right for Peggy and the Dearings.”
He remembers the long drive from Columbia in a hearse driven by Charlie Powell of Waters-Powell Funeral Home. He remembers meeting the Dearing family at the funeral home prior to the service so they could view Phil’s body. Collins said he was instructed to stand beside Phil’s casket at parade rest during the viewing, but once the family arrived there were far too many emotions. Lots of hugs and tears followed.
To this day he still does not remember much or anything about the graveside service itself.
“My mind went into kind of a defensive mode, I think,” Collins said. “
As for Dearing Moore, there is little memory of the service. The emotions of the day of the funeral and the day that followed were too overwhelming.
“I was just 20 and was completely overwhelmed,” said Dearing Moore. “I remember them playing taps, but that’s about it.”
She said that she was in such a state of shock that she did not even remember that it was Collins who presented the flag until he suggested it for the reenactment.
Dearing Moore said that while she was overcome with grief and worry, she was determined to remain strong for her family, especially her daughter. She said she used the of bravery exhibited by Jackie Kennedy Onassis as a model of to go by.
“I was 13 or 14 when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963,” said Dearing Moore. “I remember watching Jackie Kennedy and how brave and composed she seemed to be during such a tragic circumstance. That had a profound influence on me. When Phil died I wanted to be able to handle the situation with the same strength that Jackie Kennedy had shown.”
On a spring afternoon at Florence National Cemetery with just themselves and a photographer from Brown Memorials on hand, Collins and Dearing Moore reenacted a moment that took place nearly 50 years prior.
“I had tears come to my eye as I was standing before Peggy,” said Collins. “I have so much admiration for her, what she has gone through and the strength she has shown.”
As for Dearing Moore, she said her hands might have been shaking a little when she took the flag from her dear friend for a second time.
Since Phil Dearing’s funeral, Collins has presented many more American flags as a member of the Florence Veterans Honor Guard. He said it is still a very hard and emotional task to fulfill, but one that is so very important.
Dearing Moore has been happily remarried and shares her story fairly often, particularly since the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument project began earlier this year. It wasn’t always so easy.
“It took many years before I could even speak in public about it,” Dearing Moore admits.
Another significant part of the etching is the headstone of Medal of Honor recipient Chief Boatswain's Mate First Class James Elliott Williams just above the flag presentation. Williams, a native of Darlington, is considered to be the most decorated enlisted man in the history of the U.S. Navy. Once the committee decided William’s headstone should be prominently displayed in the photo, permission from his widow, Gloria Williams Patterson, was needed.
Collins said he approached Williams with the request, but before he could finish explaining the committee’s plan she emphatically said, “Do it. Go ahead and do it.”
The Gold Star Family Memorial Monument and the engraving will always hold a special place for Collins and Dearing Moore.
“We played a part in this, but it is really not about us,” said Collins. “It’s about the families who lost a dad or a mom, a brother or sister, a grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle. This is to honor them and the loss they suffered.”