The casket of Vietnam War casualty Donald Grella is carried from the Laurel/Concord high school gym in Laurel Saturday. Grella went missing in 1965 when his helicopter crashed in South Vietnam. His remains were identified in 2006 and returned to his hometown for burial. (WILLIAM LAUER/Lincoln Journal Star)
By SHERYL SCHMECKPEPER / For the Lincoln Journal Star | Posted: Saturday, October 3, 2009 11:55 pm
LAUREL – The cold, windy hill near here where Don Grella’s remains were laid to rest Saturday is much different from where he lay hidden for almost 44 years.
For most of those years, Grella’s body was buried in the tangled maze of trees, shrubs and vines that make up Vietnam’s central highlands.
Last spring, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command uncovered human remains at a helicopter crash site near An Khe, and in June, the remains were identified as Spec. Grella and the three others of A Company who left on a routine service mission Dec. 28, 1965, never to return.
“There is no one word to describe the emotion,” said Shirley Haase of Omaha, Grella’s only sibling, who spoke during her brother’s funeral service.
“There’s sadness to confirm his death … yet relief that the journey has come to an end,” she said.
Before Grella’s remains were discovered, Haase and her husband, Ron, spent more than a decade attending meetings with people from the Department of Defense, interacting with fellow members of the National League of POW/MIA Families and searching for clues into the disappearance.
“Don – who found peace years ago – will finally be properly buried,” she told the approximately 500 veterans, military personnel, friends and relatives who gathered at Laurel High School to say hello and goodbye to the “red-haired boy,” who as a teenager, Haase said, liked to hunt, fish and impersonate Elvis.
“He even had the blue suede shoes,” she said.
Grella, who would have been 68 years old by now, was drafted shortly after graduating from high school in 1958. He served two years, came home for a year, re-enlisted and then, Haase said, asked to go to Vietnam.
In November 1965, Grella’s company was involved in the battle of Ia Drang Valley in Pleiku Province, later described by the book “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young.”
A month later, in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, 1965, Grella and three other men – pilot Jesse Phelps, co-pilot Kenneth Stancil and door gunner Thomas Rice – left An Khe base camp on a supply mission. Ten minutes into the flight, the pilot of the UH1 Huey radioed that the flight was difficult because of bad weather and darkness.
“It’s amazing that he survived that battle (Ira Drang Valley) and then died on a routine supply mission,” said Col. Rodney A. Armon, a chaplain with the Nebraska National Guard, who offered the funeral sermon.
“Yet today is the story about the love a sister had for a brother,” he continued. “It’s about the need to get a final answer … to get her brother home to be laid to rest properly,” he said.
“Forty-four years ago, God saw fit to rescue this child of His from this world of pain. Now, Don is forever young and forever at peace.”
When the service ended, a military honor guard carried Grella’s flag-draped coffin to the waiting hearse through a column of leather-shrouded Patriot Guard and Legion Riders, who held their flags at attention as their fallen comrade passed by.
The procession of vehicles filed past more motorcycle riders and spectators, who lined the streets and highways leading to the cemetery, where the coffin was laid to rest between Grella’s parents, Leo, who died in 1953, and Alberta, who died in 2006.
On that hill, Col. Philip G. Houser, also a chaplain with the Nebraska National Guard, committed Grella’s body once again to the earth with the “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” he said.
Then, the sound of the wind whipping the flags gave way to a roar of helicopter blades chopping the air, and out of the eastern horizon rose four military helicopters to fly over the scene, offering one last salute to the fallen hero.
As the roar of the choppers faded, the blast of 21 guns sounded, a trumpeter played taps, and the flag covering the coffin was folded and handed to Shirley Haase.
And there, on a cold, windy hill in Nebraska, far from the jungles of Vietnam, a 44-year-old story came to an end.