Millions of Americans celebrate Memorial Day on the last day in May. Traditionally, it is considered an unofficial start of summer, but most importantly it is a day to memorialize the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The observance of Memorial Day represents a different set of emotions for retired Lt. Col. Pete Armstrong, a former Towson resident and a retired Vietnam veteran, who will participate in the wreath laying at the Dulaney Valley Memorial Day ceremony next week.
“It’s turned out to really be an honor to been asked to participate in the ceremony,” he said.
Armstrong, 78, will honor Marine Corps. Private John Yeager, a stepbrother he never met, who was a casualty of the Vietnam War.
Yeager, 20, was killed within a year of his deployment after his squad was caught in an ambush in Vietnam. He died at a hospital a few days later, on Oct. 2, 1967. Yeager was a recipient of the Purple Heart.
“I was in Vietnam not far from where he was killed, when he was killed in 1967,” Armstrong said. “He was right at 21 and I was 24.”
Yeager and Armstrong lived six blocks from each other in Towson growing up, but didn’t know each other.
In 1969, a few years after Yeager’s death, his father, Earl Yeager, and Armstrong’s mother, Gladys, met by chance while visiting the cemetery at Dulaney Valley.
“My dad is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens and Johnny was buried not too far from where my dad was buried,” Armstrong said. “My mom and Johnny’s dad met each other at the cemetery visiting their respective graves.”
Armstrong’s mother was a widow — her husband, himself a veteran, had died of cancer a few years earlier — and Earl was divorced.
“Turned out both of them were living in Towson and about the same age,” Armstrong said. “One thing led to another and they started dating.”
The two were married in 1971, and were married more than 30 years before Earl died in 2002. Gladys died in 2013.
Armstrong heard from Earl that John Yeager had taken his parents’ divorce hard and said he believed it played a role in him enlisting in the military.
“John was upset about that from what I heard, and one of the things he wanted to do was show support on his dad’s side and emulate his service,” he said. “He was quite proud of Earl, who had been a World War II marine, and Earl was involved in several of the island campaigns in the Pacific.”
Armstrong first heard about John after meeting Earl in 1968, after coming home from Vietnam for a year.
“I met Earl and he told me everything about John,” he said. “Apparently he was quite smart — he had gone to Friends School of Baltimore, a private school, and he was an accomplished chess player that won some titles in the Baltimore area.”
Armstrong also learned that Earl was able to speak with John on the phone before his death.
“He was initially wounded and not killed outright, ”he said. “They were able to talk by telephone for two or three days while Johnny was in the hospital before succumbing to his wounds.”
His son’s death took a significant and emotional toll on Earl, Armstrong said.
“It was favorable that he got to talk to him and unfavorable that he had hopes up that he would survive,” he said.
Today, Armstrong lives in North Carolina, where he works as a mechanic in a friend’s garage.
“I enjoy getting my hands dirty and working with things that make sense,” he said.
Armstrong plans to travel to Maryland and attend the Dulaney Valley Memorial Ceremony next week to pay his respects to John Yeager and all of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. He will be accompanied by one of his classmates from Towson High School, who is a retired lieutenant from the U.S. Army. They will both be in uniform for the event.
This will be Armstrong’s first time coming to the ceremony in 15 years.
“It’s one of the nicest and most intimate services that I’m aware of,” he said.
The 54th annual Memorial Day ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens will take place at 10 a.m. Monday. It will honor six service members with ties to Maryland who were lost within the past two years, and pay tribute to all men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who have died defending the country.