Fallen Army Sergeant laid to rest 45 years after death

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CENTRALIA - Mexico and Centralia filled with the sound of motorcycles and the silence of a community in remembrance Saturday nearly 45 years after the death of Sgt. Rodney Griffin.

Griffin, born in Mexico and raised in Centralia, was 21 years old when his helicopter was shot down over Cambodia during the Vietnam War. On May 2, 1970, he went missing. For years, his family wondered where he went, if he was a prisoner of war.

Some of Griffin's loved ones took those questions to the grave, including his parents and his older brother, Bill Griffin.

Bill was buried with a bracelet commemorating Rodney as a Prisoner of War. "He always insisted on that through the years," Bill's widow, Doris, said. Doris said Bill never gave up on finding answers.

On Feb. 11, 2015, what would've been Bill's birthday, answers came.

It was "Happy and sad," Doris Griffin said, "mixed emotions with it."

"It's good to know," Darryl Griffin, Rodney's brother, said, "but I don't know if I would use the word 'closure'. It will always be there, the loss of a brother."

Once Rodney was positively identified, the family brought him home. Saturday, they invited Rodney's friends, classmates, and the entire community to remember Griffin's life and sacrifice together.

"We did everything together," Darryl said. "He was a hard worker. He loved to dance. He loved to sing."

Darryl said Rodney received a letter from President Lyndon Johnson informing him he was drafted into the Army. He was ordered to report to Boone County. Darryl said Rodney volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Doris said Rodney was hesitant about joining the military, but "he did what his country told him to do," she said.

"I never did lose hope that he was a prisoner," Darryl said, hoping he would someday come home.

Saturday's memorial to Rodney Griffin began with a motorcade procession from Centralia to Mexico. Dozens of bikers came to show their support. Throngs attended the funeral in Centralia.

"I am very humbled. It warms my heart," Darryl said.

Residents of Mexico Saturday lined the streets to watch the motorcade pass by, held flags to show support.

Elaine Kuntz, a mail carrier and resident of Mexico, was walking her mail route when the motorcade passed by. 

"My heart was up in my throat. I had a difficult time even swallowing. I noticed lots of people with their hand over their hearts. This is a real display of patriotism," Kuntz said.

"War is always a tumultuous time," Kuntz said, adding the misconceptions of the Vietnam War negatively affected how the soldiers returning were treated.

Alan Varrin also came out the see the procession.

"My dad's retired military," Varrin said, "This is about everybody," he said. "I appreciate my freedom, what my freedom stands for."

The procession ended in Centralia, where American flags lined the streets and covered the cemetary in honor of Rodeny and all fallen Centralia veterans. At Centralia High School, Rodney Griffin was remembered in an hour and a half-long ceremony. Friends and classmates remembered Rodney's hell-raising energy, dare-devil tenacity and charisma.

Rodeny's parents, Opul and George W. Griffin, didn't live to see Rodney come home. But, Doris Griffin said they would both be happy to see today's events.

Doris said, "Opul used to say, 'I don't want Rodney to be forgotten. I want people to remember Rodney.' From the turnout of today and Thursday at the airport and all, Rodney has not been forgotten. I said in the beginning I said 'well, you know, he's been gone 45 years, so you have to be 55, 65 years old to remember it, but that's not right. It's trickled down through the children and the grandchildren and the young people know all about him, even. So, he was not forgotten. That's for certain."

"We don't have to wonder. We know he's watching over us now. He's my guardian angel now," Darryl said.

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