Former U.S. Army Staff Sgt. David King’s sendoff was filled with patriotic tributes and flag-waving escorts, even though the Vietnam veteran’s last months on Earth were marred by battles with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
More than a dozen members of the Virginia Patriot Guard Riders and Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association rode with the King family from Spotsylvania County to Quantico National Cemetery, where King’s ashes were placed in the ground as his wife, Debra, three children and seven grandchildren watched, arms around each other.
At the graveside, the motorcyclists formed a flag line through which about 100 friends and relatives walked to get to the white tent set up in Section 23 of the cemetery.
A bagpiper played mournful notes in the background, then two military personnel carefully carried an American flag and a plain white box carrying David King’s remains.
Lindsey Anderson held his salute as a service member knelt at the feet of Debra King and offered thanks from the Army and a grateful nation. Anderson’s friendship with King went back 51 years; they first knew each other, growing up in Rhode Island, served together in the jungles of Vietnam and met again a few years later in a club on the base of Fort Knox, Ky.
“It was one of those friendships that was meant to be,” Anderson said.
Anderson had arranged for the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association to attend King’s service as escorts, along with the local Virginia Patriot Guard Riders. He traveled 1,200 miles to get to his friend’s memorial from his home in Jones, Okla.
“I know this is what he would want, and this is what a friend would do,” Anderson said. “He was one of those guys, if he was your friend, he was your friend forever.”
“He sure as hell was,” chimed in Richard Ryder of Richmond.
Ryder recalled an episode from 33 years ago, when he and King both were in the National Guard’s 276th Engineer Battalion. (King served three years in Vietnam and 12 years as a reservist.)
A command master sergeant had just chewed out a first sergeant, in front of the latter officer’s men, and Ryder was a young first lieutenant, made livid by what he saw. He told the senior officer that if he ever berated a man like that again, in front of his unit, he’d smack the you-know-what out of him.
The outburst got Ryder kicked out of the unit, but earned him the respect of King and other Vietnam veterans who watched it unfold.
“When a Vietnam vet or combat vet tells a young lieutenant, ‘I’d follow you into hell,’ you can’t get a better compliment in the military,” Ryder said.
Known to his friends as Dave, King was 68 when he died on July 27, a month after his family shared his struggle to get VA benefits during a session hosted by Rep. Rob Wittman, R–1st District.
At that gathering, his wife stood before congressmen and VA representatives and described how she and her husband had tried to get help after his recent diagnosis with cancer.
During his tenure in Vietnam, he was in an area where the pesticide Agent Orange was used heavily. He and his family assumed the chemical had caused the cancer, which had been found in his colon, liver, lung, lymph nodes and bones.
But tests couldn’t prove where it originated because tissue samples taken by the VA during two biopsies were botched, Debra King said. By June, Dave King had become too weak to have another procedure.
At the June meeting, Wittman and the VA representatives promised to give the Kings all the help they needed. The audience—which included many veterans who had served in the same conflict—applauded, and the Kings hoped their situation would change.
Then, Dave King’s health deteriorated quickly. After his death, the VA did an autopsy to determine cause, but the family hasn’t gotten the results. His widow has been told by the VA that it can garnish the Social Security she gets, on behalf of her late husband, to cover medical bills from visits made to Mary Washington Hospital. The Kings said they got approval from the VA before going to the Fredericksburg hospital and did so only after Dave King developed sepsis, a potentially fatal infection.
The Kings said they were told at Mary Washington that he got an infection because he was weakened from having too much chemotherapy.
“Suffice to say, the past three months have been a nightmare,” said John King, Dave King’s brother, who lives in Arizona.
Wittman’s spokesperson said King’s case is being handled by the office of U.S. Rep. Dave Brat. However, Wittman was planning to send the family a flag flown in his honor over the U.S. Capitol and remarks Wittman made about him in the Congressional Record.
Brat’s communications director, Mitchell Hailstone, said he couldn’t discuss the status of King’s case for privacy reasons. But he confirmed that Brat’s office is working with the family “to provide them the information they are seeking.”
John King, the brother of the late veteran, hoped the community would show its support for the family by rallying at the cemetery. The brief, and respectful, service seemed to accomplish just that.
“Dave would be very proud,” said Linwood Moore, a former Alabama pastor who gave a few remarks on King’s behalf.
Some family members chuckled in agreement when Moore said King wouldn’t “want a preacher reading scripture and putting people to sleep.” After Moore described how much friends and family—especially those seven grandchildren—meant to King, the preacher said he and King saw “eye-to-eye on God,” and the Army veteran wasn’t ashamed of his relationship with God.
“Dave’s in another Army today, an Army where God is the strength,” Moore said.