Thirty-seven years after he was wounded in the Vietnam War, former Marine Corps Sgt. Dennis R. Mills was finally recognized.
Mills, clad in dress blues, stood silently amid a sea of uniformed men and 210 rippling flags in the Centralia Cemetery and accepted his Purple Heart during a Memorial Day ceremony on Wednesday night.
The ceremony, led by Ron Azdell of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, attracted a crowd that included family and friends. But for Mills, one of the most important attendees was Rick Weirich, the radioman responsible for rescuing Mills after he was wounded.
“At the time,” Mills said of the day he was injured, “I kind of felt like (the Marine Corps) was my future, but after that day it wasn’t.”
A Centralia resident since he was 6 years old, Mills’ path to the Purple Heart began in 1968 when he was drafted at age 20. It was simple chance that he was chosen for the Marines, he said, explaining that every fifth man who completed his paperwork became a member of the Corps.
Once in Vietnam, Mills became part of the 1st Marine Division, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, running patrols in the jungle to check for enemy movement. After completing his one-year tour of duty, he chose to extend his service in Vietnam by another six months and thought of a career in the Marines.
By all accounts, April 1, 1970, was a beautiful morning at Camp Reasoner, near Freedom Hill and outside the city of Da Nang. Mills, a corporal at the time, was scheduled to lead his last patrol. Helicopters dropped him and his men at their assigned location at 8 a.m. Even then, Mills said, one pilot suspected their patrol wouldn’t last long.
“He said, ‘I’ll be back after them. It’s a hot zone.’ And he was right,” Mills said.
Mills and his squad members, who had radioed their coordinates to the helicopters, assumed their positions. It was then that Mills and two others suddenly fell to the ground. One had stepped on a land mine.
Mills suffered injuries to both legs and his left arm, and he had shrapnel lodged in his back.
Weirich, a corporal, was one of the secondary radiomen in the returning aircraft. Getting Mills and the others out fell to him because the helicopter’s primary radios were out of commission. The situation was sobering for the 20-year-old Weirich, who had been in Vietnam for only five months.
“I was a rookie,” he said. “I had to grow up quickly.”
Weirich arranged for medical evacuation helicopters to come to the scene, where they used ropes to lift Mills and the others to safety.
But the rescue was only the beginning. Mills underwent multiple operations during the next few months at hospitals in Vietnam, Japan and Tennessee.
The surgeries on his left leg would continue for more than a decade. It was in 1992 that doctors at Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital told Mills they had to amputate his left leg. As Azdell aptly explained during Mills’ ceremony on Wednesday, “The choice is lose your leg or possibly lose your life to gangrene. The choice, the sobering one, is an easy one.”
Although he qualified for the Purple Heart, Mills never actually received the medal. It wasn’t until 2001, when his family wanted to get Mills a commemorative Purple Heart license plate, that they discovered he lacked certification. Mills’ daughter, Mindi Mills-Scielso , 31, embarked on a five-year mission of letter writing and phone calls that finally got Mills certified.
But Mills mentioned during a visit to hospitalized Army 101st Air Assault Spc. Jason Blakemore, who was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he suffered in Iraq, that Mills was still missing his medal. Blakemore, formerly of Columbia and currently a VFW service officer, took it upon himself to fix the problem.
“He just went on without my permission and did it,” Mills said. Before long, Mills got a letter from U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., who wanted to take up Mills’ cause.
Weirich stayed with the Marines another year after Mills was hurt and lost track of his friend until 2004.
“Thirty-four years after he was wounded, I found some old photo albums,” Weirich said. “I was just going through them when I saw a picture and said, ‘There’s Denny Mills.’”
Weirich, now of St. Clair, recalled that Mills lived in Centralia and got back in touch with him. They exchanged letters and phone calls for a while but lost touch again.
Then Weirich learned about the Purple Heart ceremony from a friend who lives in Centralia.
“He told me about it, and I said, ‘I’ll be there.’ Now that we’re back in touch, we’re going to be doing some celebrating,” Weirich said.
After the ceremony, Mills tried to keep the day in perspective, waving his arm toward the flags that represented soldiers wounded or killed in action.
“Today is more about them,” he said. “Not about me.”