Widow, friends, country memorialize Vietnam veteran
Charlie Epp hasn’t seen it, but he knows it’s there, a row of white names chiseled into black marble.
He knows the final name in the line, located at the far end of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., where the ground lifts to meet the top of the wall and bring visitors out of the depths of the monument’s memories.
Richard M. Goossens, a lance corporal with the Marines, who at 19 served a month in the Vietnam War before being shot several times on Mother’s Day 1968; who was supposed to die in a military hospital; who doctors said should have died long ago but who lived through another 36 years and 14 different surgeries.
He lived long enough to earn a master’s degree in geography from the University of Northern Colorado, marry Joan Goossens, move to Hayden and father two boys.
And become Epp’s friend.
When Goossens succumbed to his wartime injuries in 2004 – so far removed by time and distance from the tropical jungles of South Asia but not so far away to be free from the war – Epp not only attended his funeral but dug the grave.
For a time, Epp dug every new grave in Hayden Cemetery. He was the gravedigger.
It’s a job like that that makes it easier to be at peace with death, Epp said, but sometimes he still lingers on life, which can at times seem far worse.
He’ll think about such things when he visits Goossens’ tombstone. That monument sits about 25 feet from the grave of Epp’s father, a German immigrant who fought for the U.S. in World War II, which Epp also dug.
“I just remember the kind of the guy he was and how hard it must have been,” Epp said about the thoughts he has at Goossens’ grave. “It was a bad time. There are vets who still have trouble dealing with all that, remembering it all. We were accused of being baby-killers and spit on. It wasn’t their choice or my choice to go into the military. My dad loved this country. He was really proud of me when I went in. I’m proud of every soldier that serves.”
Epp served from 1966 to 1970 but was stationed in Germany and did not see combat.
The fact that their experiences in the military were so different never divided him and Goossens, however.
“A lot of Vietnam-era veterans seem to relate to each other,” Epp said. “It doesn’t matter where we were. In our minds, none of us were very far from Vietnam.”
In 2008, four years after his death, Goossens’ name was added to the end of the Vietnam Memorial, which lists soldiers in the order they passed.
In honor of his memory, Joan Goossens started a memorial scholarship in his name at Hayden High School.
The gift is awarded to one high school student each year who plans to enter a geography-related field, the same subject Richard spent his life pursuing after retiring from the Marine Corps in 1974.
Epp presented Hayden senior Jacob Magee with the first scholarship this year, worth $1,000. Joan paid the sum out of her own pocket.
She recently left town to visit her late husband’s name at the memorial in Washington, D.C., and could not be reached for this story.
Christine Epp, Charlie’s wife, said she didn’t know Richard or Joan very well. She will not, however, forget the service Richard gave his country or the debt his country owes his memory.
She can’t, not after living those sacrifices through her grandfather, World War I veteran Glenn Frentress; father, World War II veteran Forrest Frentress; and son, Alex, who recently served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She can’t, not after playing “Taps” on her trumpet every Memorial Day for the past 20 years at Hayden Cemetery.
“A lot of the veterans don’t expect anything,” Christine said. “They’re quiet about it. A lot of them come home and just move on, even though they’ve seen a lot. Sometimes we don’t know how much they sacrificed.”
Like Richard Goossens, Christine added, who didn’t let on about his injuries, until she played “Taps” at his funeral.
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