Man Down: July 24, 1966






Let your memory be your travel bag.” –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn



The following is an excerpt from the memoir AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED, Wm. Morrow/HarperCollins.





I received an e-mail from another veteran who had served with Dad. Doug Johnson, of Nebraska, was an assistant gunner under Daddy. He sent me the following e-mail, titled “Surprise”:

Say, I have been wondering about Sgt. Spears’s children for a long time. I was with him in Vietnam in the same gun section (2nd). He was quite the guy. When we did something it was done the best. Our gun pit was the sharpest, the personal bunker was the best.


I was surprised all right. I asked Johnson to recount what he remembered of the day Daddy died. Here’s his reply:


For some reason I never heard the explosion (as I must have been darn tired). Saylor came and got me saying Sgt. Spears has been hit. They need blood bad since I was Type O, we ran to the tent. Bob Kessler was giving blood ( 1 section trucker ) at that time but I didn’t have to because he had expired. Our regular medic got hit at the same time (Riddle) and headquarters was there with us at the time. I think that is how medic Pablo Gallegos got in our battery because he had to take care of both of them, and since we lost our regular medic he stayed with us. I don’t think medic Riddle wounds were life threatening. All of us guys were in a state of shock over Sgt. Spears’s death.


Johnson said it was not an incoming mortar but a short round from Thorne’s gun that killed Dad:

It was Sgt. Thorne’s 3 section gun. This was at night so most people were sleeping, as I was. You never know which way they are going to fire these guns. You always set up your sleeping tent or canopy behind the gun. But when they start to firing and it’s over you, you just lay there with your hands over your ears and bounce on the air mattress. As you don’t know if they are shooting right over you or how far down the tube (barrel) it is. If it’s possible, you are better off to get up and help.  Anyway, Saylor said it was a muzzle blast (where the projectile goes off a short distance from the tube).


With Johnson’s help, I found several other men from B Battery – Gary Smith of New Jersey, who plotted the coordinates for the gun; Gary Catlett of California, my father’s driver in Vietnam; and Andrew Melick Jr. of Oregon, a gunner.

Smith didn’t see the gun blast that killed my father. Like Daddy, he was sleeping. He wasn’t sure who was conducting the H&I fire that day. He wondered if perhaps Daddy was operating the gun when the muzzle blast happened. But the retired police officer is sure of one thing – it wasn’t incoming fire that killed my father. “The ammo we were using was leftover from Korea stockpiles,” Smith said. “We’d all been worried about how stable those rounds were.”

Smith, who was nineteen when he did his tour in Vietnam, said my father’s death stunned him. “It shocked us all,” he said.

Andrew Melick, Jr., was on R&R in Thailand, when Daddy died. He learned of Daddy’s death from the other guys in the camp. “Nobody ever said anything about it being incoming fire,” he recalled. “I was told it was a misfire from one of our own guns. That your daddy had been hit be a piece of shrap metal.”

Melick was one of the fellows who regularly played poker with Daddy. But during those games, neither man conversed much. Melick knew Sergeant Spears was married but he had no idea that my father had three children. “I didn’t make very many friends over there,” Melick explained. “Your daddy and I didn’t talk buddy, buddy.”

Gary Catlett, my father’s driver, spent a lot of time with Daddy and he remembers one day in particular, when my father got pissed at him.  “We were going into a hip shoot. I was driving along, out of nowhere. The information we got was that headquarters wanted us to shoot from the road. So I pulled off the road into this big open field. The engineers had gone in and cut down all these trees. But they left stumps about two feet high.

“Your dad was standing up, over the window. He was pointing in the direction he wanted me to go. I was watching his hand. The drive was really bumpy. I could feel the guys behind me. They were barely able to stay in the truck. The ammo was bouncing around. I’m surprised we didn’t all get killed.

“I was watching your dad pointing, when Wham! We came to a dead stop. I hit one of those stumps. It tore the entire front end of the truck.

“Your dad was so mad. He screamed at me, ‘Catlett, I ought to leave your ass here!’

“I yelled back at him, ‘I don’t think so, sir!’”

Gary Catlett laughed as he related this story. Then he quickly added, “But your dad never stayed mad. Two minutes later, he was over it.”

Dad was all business. “We talked a little, but your dad wasn’t one to get too personal,” Catlett recalled. “He was really good friends with Sergeant Thorne. But your father’s first priority was to take care of us. He was all soldier. Well-versed and straightforward. There’s nobody I’d have rather have gone to war with, your dad was so confident. He had experience. He was the kind of guy that could walk through a minefield and have mines exploding all around him and he’d still be calm. He knew how to keep morale up. We respected him.”

After Dad’s death, Catlett withdrew to a quiet place. “When somebody gets hit, it numbs you. When we went to Vietnam, your dad told us that a lot of us wouldn’t be coming back. I remember thinking I didn’t know about anyone else, but I was coming back. I never had much fear over there. It wasn’t like we were going into the tunnels, blood-hunting out the Viet Cong.”

He tried to prepare for the inevitable loss of his fellow soldiers. “It’s hard to get close to anyone. That’s the way war is. You know they could be gone, so you prepare yourself for that. I was saddened by your father’s death, but what can you do about it?’”

All the fellows were worried about the aged mortars. “We could never depend on those rounds,” Catlett said. “I put one in a tube one time and the tip of the fuse hit the breech block and started sizzling. We slammed that thing up and shot it. That was scary. From that point on we started cutting the fuses.”

Catlett said he was asleep on the ammo pile the morning Daddy got hit. “I used to sleep right on the ammo. I figured if I was going to go, I would go up in style. If that round had been incoming fire, everybody would’ve known it. I’m sure it was H&I fire. It went out of the tube and blew up. Faulty rounds weren’t an unusual thing. But usually they’d get further away from camp before they exploded. The guns were sitting twenty-five meters apart. We staggered em, like a W. So when the round hit, it covered a big area.”

Catlett said the round had come from the forward gun. Thorne’s gun.

The eyewitness testimony from the men who were at the camp the day Daddy died – Osborne, Nash, Thorne, Johnson, Smith, Melick and Catlett is conflicting. But they all agree on one important fact – Daddy’s wounds were caused by shrapnel, not a gunshot.

Daddy’s autopsy report indicated he had a gunshot wound from his back through his abdomen, but I could not find one eyewitness of that day’s event to support that finding. Nor could I find any evidence that he had been decapitated or that the mortar round detonated prematurely while he was operating his own howitzer.

A congressional investigation launched by Senator Gordon Smith resulted in the following analysis by researchers at the National Archives at College Park:

Our staff searched all the records we have in our custody that might have contained information regarding the incident in which SSgt. David P. Spears was killed. There are not records of the 2/9th artillery for this time frame. The daily journal and the daily situation report for the 3rdBrigade/25th Infantry Task Force mention the accident. Copies are enclosed. The task force was attached to the 4th Infantry Division at this time. Their records provide no additional information, either in the division general staff or division artillery files . . . The records of the next higher echelon, First Field Force Vietnam, reiterate the information that was passed to them by the brigade. The G-3 daily journal reads: “Fm 3/25 LT. Powell, to MAJ Cropper, 240525 – B/2/9 had a 105 muzzle burst. Rslts: 3 wounded, 1 serious, 2 minor. Medvac requested but weathered in. No additional details.” The records of the United States Army Vietnam Provost Marshal and the 18th Military Police brigade do not cover this time frame. Line of duty investigations and summary court martial are not included among our records.”


I was never able to verify by documentation the story Osborne told me about regarding the dereliction-of-duty charge against the helicopter pilot who failed to fuel up the night before the mortar attack.  Nor was I able to track down any proof of the money orders Osborne said he sent to Mama. The copies of the situation report, sent from the National Archives and marked “confidential,”  provided no further information, other than that at 0530 “a muzzle burst occurred in B Btry area, resulting in two wounded and one killed.”

Third man down.

None of this searching can change the outcome of what happened the morning of July 24, 1966.


Book Karen

Keeping it Weird and Loud



I have lived in Portland at various times of my adult life. First as a college student, then as a young married woman. My three older children were all born in the Greater Portland area. I was living there when Mt. St. Helen’s erupted.

But Portland and I are like an ill-matched couple. No matter how hard we try to make a go of it, we simply can’t hang. We are good for a couple of days, reminiscing and catching up with each other, but that’s about all either one of us can tolerate  the other. We like each other best in small increments.

Don’t get me wrong. I consider Portland a beautiful city. I love her skyline and her river. She’s got some great shops and wonderful touristy things to do. She has some of the best food on the West Coast, and I love sailing on her waterways. And don’t even get me started on the many bookstores and readers. Portland is a reading city. I love that in any city. Besides some of my dearest friends live in Portland, so I don’t mean to disparage their fair city in any way whatsoever.

But Portland wears me flat out.

I don’t think I could have told you what it is about Portland that bothers me so until this last trip. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday visiting there with Baby Girl. (Thank you for your prayers. They are so helpful and such an encouragement during this difficult time.)

As we walked through downtown, I finally figured out what it is about Portland that grates on my nerves so.

Portland is a loud, shrill broad.

I live my life in almost monk-like silence. I go entire weeks where the only people I speak to outside of family are the characters of the books I am writing. But when the times comes for me to venture out, say to the post office, shopping, or getting groceries, even then my encounters are mostly gentle. People say hello. They hug. They visit a bit. Then we all go along our merry way.

Nobody is shouting at each other or over each other trying to be heard, except maybe at a ballgame.

Everywhere I go in Portland the noise level reaches World Cup fever-pitch. Restaurants. Street Corners. Stores. Even Multnomah County Library is unsettlingly loud.

It’s like everybody in Portland has something to say and they are all saying it, or singing it, or shouting it, or declaring it, or wearing it, or flashing it, or bumper-stickering it, or box-topping it, or petitioning it all at the very same time.

I think that must be why Portland is one of those places where tats and body piercings have been embraced with an evangelical zeal.  People in Portland appear to have such a need to express themselves and to make darn sure they are noticed.

The worst thing anyone can do to a Portlander is ignore them.

I know I am generalizing here. There are likely thousands of people in Portland who would like to live in silence, too, I imagine, but good luck finding such a person in Downtown.

The people Downtown are so dang loud.

Their clothes are loud. Their tats are loud. Their studs are loud. Their street music is head-banging loud. (I much prefer the street music in Baton Rouge or New Orleans. There’s a gentleness to it that Portland lacks). Their signs are loud. Their petitions are loud. Their restaurants are so noisy you need a megaphone to place an order.

I don’t know how anyone in Downtown Portland hears themselves think.


But then, maybe that’s the point.

They are not a city given to quiet self-reflection.

Portlanders consider themselves Progressives.

They don’t waste a lot of time looking back over things.

They like to think they are always looking ahead.

Portlanders are, in essence, explorers. Always in search for something new to try, they want to lead the way. They don’t much care where they are going. They just want to be the first to get there.

Keeping it weird isn’t something Portlanders have to work at. They wear weirdness like New Yorkers wear black. They are completely comfortable in it.

Bless their little stud-pierced-hearts.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.








Book Karen

Death without a Funeral



This was going to be the blog post in which I announced that daughter Konnie and her husband are expecting wee ones.

I had it all written in my mind.

I was going to share with you how long a struggle this has been – five years. And I was going to talk about how many prayers have been poured out on behalf of this couple who have longed to be parents.

I’ve mentioned their infertility struggle in a couple of other posts. We’ve had those discussions about how our society has turned adoption and infertility into money-making ventures of the highest order. So please, understand, I’m not interested in continuing that discussion right now.

There are so many conflicting emotions that go along with the burden of infertility. We get a glimpse into that from several Biblical stories. But this post, it wasn’t going to be about the struggle. It was going to be about the rejoicing.

I was going to tell you how on Memorial Day, while at Arlington, three Vietnam veterans and I gathered around the grave of a beloved friend of ours – Gordon Wofford – and we held hands there and prayed both to God and that Tennessee storyteller whom we all love so much, and asked God and Gordon to intercede on Jon & Konnie’s behalf and to grant them the blessing of children.

“I’ll pray silently,” I said as those men in their yellow National Park Service shirts and hats grasped each other’s hands and mine.

“No! Don’t!” they said. “Pray out loud.”

So I did.

And then they did.

They prayed for my daughter to have a child. They love me and my children and I am so blessed by that love on a daily basis. They and their families are God’s gift to us.

It seemed magical, certainly mystical. As we were all there praying around Gordon’s grave, daughter Konnie was in the midst of a fertility procedure. This was supposed to be the post where I announced that God and Gordon heard our prayers!! Konnie was not only pregnant but pregnant with twins!!

I was going to tell you how I was in East Tennessee when I received the phone call from Jon and Konnie telling me that they saw two babies on the ultrasound! I had to pull off the road I was crying so hard. There was a lake and a field of yellow flowers there where I pulled off in the birthplace and burial grounds of my mother and my father.

Most people know what it is to cry out to the Lord in anguish for a specific prayer: For a healing. For a hope. For a restoration. For peace in a warring land. For forgiveness. Generations of people have prayed for these things, will continue to pray for these things.

Rejoicing seems too small of a word to describe how my body ached to give thanks in as equally an intense way as it had cried out.

How do I give thanks with my whole body, mind and soul? I asked a friend.

God understands, she said.

Even so, the grateful part seemed so pale in comparison to the pleaing part. I was going to talk to you about all that. I was going to get your ideas on how you express gratitude for those things that happen exceedingly abundantly above all that you ask for.

 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

I have been so excited to share all of this with you because I know some of you have been praying right alongside us in this journey.

Instead I am sharing a different post. One in which I tell you about this wild and beautiful and so, so, hard journey that just got harder.

A routine ultrasound revealed that one of the twins has died.

The heart has stopped beating.

Konnie and Jon’s baby – our grandchild – lays lifeless in a womb alongside a sibling, who by all accounts appears to be fine. At least, that is our continued prayer and our hope. Feel free to join us in that, would you?

There is tremendous grief.

And not a small amount of anxiety.

Those of you who have walked this journey, you understand. You know how the sight of a stroller or an infant can invoke weeping. You know the conflict when kind people say, well, thank goodness there is the one, still.

Yes. There is gratefulness for that remaining life. And such hopes. And more than a few fears. But there is grief as well.

This was a fully-formed life. Lost. Our daughter and her husband will forever be the parents to twins, one of whom died.

It is, as a dear friend said to me, a death without a funeral.

Our hearts are hurting. I know many of you understand that hurt.

That first night after we learned of the death, I dreamed I was drowning. That I could not come up for air. I kept trying to follow the bubbles but I could not surface soon enough.

My daughter wants to know why. Why, why, why, she asks. It is so hard to understand.

It is the whys that drown us.

I told her that even if God himself curled up on the couch beside us and explained the whys of it all, His answer would never take away the hurt. Knowing why would not for one moment erase the longing for that child.

The promise of eternity does not diminish the devastation of death. 

A parent who is not devastated by the death of a child has something wrong with them.

When a couple who have longed to be parents lose a child, there is nothing to do but weep alongside them.

I planned that this post would be about our ridiculous gleefulness over the impending birth of the twin grandchildren to come. Instead, I sit here, so conflicted. Happy and sad. Grateful and grieving.  Hopeful and anxious. Broken wide-open yet again.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.

Book Karen

What we can do



I leave town for a few days and I be dadgum if the whole world didn’t fall apart.

There are wildfires brewing in Wenatchee.

Bombs dropping in Gaza.

People shooting down  passengers planes from the sky over the Ukraine.

And let’s not forget the border crisis that is still in effect in the United States. Which leaves me wondering, what do the reporters in Mexico call it? Do they refer to it as a border crisis? Because you know the terms we use frame how we think about these things.

I know you all are thinking about the lives of those caught up in all these situations.

I’m putting up some links so that as you pray, you might also be compelled to help. Here are some places where you could do just that:


For the border, consider making a donation to the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team. This team is comprised of The Bethany House, the Holding Institute, and Catholic Social Services have teamed up to form a system. For more information, Click Here. 


For those killed in the Malaysian flight, I suggest a donation to a local AIDS ministry or the AIDS 2014 conference.  Many of those traveling – estimates of a 100 passengers – were on their way to the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne.  For more information about that conference or to donate to it, Click here. 


For help in Gaza, consider donating to the Save the Children fund. It has a high rating with Charity Navigator. And Save the Children is already boots on the ground in Gaza. Click here to read more about their work.

I know giving money seems like the least possible thing we could do, but it isn’t. There are people engaged in the lives of those who are suffering. We can pray for those who are ministering to the suffering and we can support the work they are doing, so that they can continue to deliver aid as necessary.

You may have suggestions of your own about how we can all take action and be of help. If so, please leave your suggestion with a link below.

And remember, Jesus us told us there would be days of trouble. He also encouraged us to be kind to one another during these hard days.

You and I, we can’t fix the world. We can’t. But the only thing that limits us from doing more of what we are able to do is our imagination.

And remember, praying isn’t the least we can do – it’s the most we can do.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain, Mercer Univ. Press.


Book Karen

A Good Kind of Lonely



I was talking with a friend recently. She’s moved to a new community, started a new job, is in a new relationship. To the casual observer everything looks hunky-dorey.

Everything is hunky-dorey most of the time.

But there are these moments – moments like she was having when we were visiting – moments in which she said her spirit feels unsettled and a sense of overwhelming loneliness overcomes her.

Loneliness is nothing to mess around with or trivialize. It is a known health risk.  Studies have shown that loneliness disrupts sleep, elevates blood pressure, increases a rise in the stress hormone cortisol, and leads to an increase in depression.  Some health reports list loneliness at epidemic levels. It is reported that loneliness is twice the health risk obesity poses. When you are obese people notice and often offer help or make suggestions for intervention.

Lonely people are harder to spot, harder to diagnose and harder to treat.

The problem is that lonely people look like all the rest of us non-lonely people.

If there is such a thing as the non-lonely.

Or is that unlonely?

What exactly is loneliness?

Contrary to popular belief it is not the result of being alone or living a life of solitude, although it can be that.

Many jobs require that we spend a great deal of our time alone or in solitude. Being a writer, for instance. Or a long-haul truck driver. Or even a short-haul truck driver. There’s a certain solitude and alone-ness that comes with being president or Pope. Stay-at-home moms can experience a great deal of isolation. Just about any job that requires a person to be at a computer all day long, there’s an isolation and a solitude in that.

But solitude isn’t the same as loneliness. A lot of people enjoy solitude. Artists often enjoy the solitude of their work.

It’s isolation that’s the problem, not solitude.

Monks, for instance, often live a life of solitude but they rarely live lives of isolation. Same for nuns and scientists.

The folks who study these things say that loneliness is often a state of mind, more than a state of being. It is the perception that one is alone and isolated that makes a person the most lonely, rather than the actual being alone or being isolated. That’s why a person can be in the middle of a lively party and feel the most acute sense of loneliness. They carry a sense that they don’t belong, don’t fit in.

Studies reveal that the loneliest among us are the elderly. They no longer have meaningful work to fill their hours, and they have often lost their life-long companions. Poor health may keep them from pursuing other interests.

But one doesn’t have to look far to see that loneliness is a major problem for much younger generations.

The falling away of traditions and social constructs has led to more people turning to non-conventional means to try to combat their loneliness. The proliferation of dating & hook-up sites is all the proof we need of all the lonely people among us.

Part of the problem is the lies we tell ourselves. Intimacy is not the ability to have a plethora of sexual partners. Intimacy is built over a lengthy period of time, time in which trust and appreciation is cultivated. Intimacy isn’t about climaxes – it’s about going deeper.

But just try telling that to the mass media selling shallow hook-ups for immediate self-gratification.

The kind of loneliness younger generations face can be quite different than the kind of loneliness the older generation faces. An older person deals with devastating loneliness when their spouse of 51 years dies. The younger person today has little hope of ever reaching a 50-year anniversary celebration with a spouse.

Young generations are grieving losses they may never experience. While they watch their grandmothers or grandfathers cope with the death of a life-long spouse, these same young people are scrolling through Twitter or Tumbler feeds, keenly aware that at 33, or 42, that their pursuit of a better life has robbed them of the very things that their grandparents enjoyed.

Lasting companionship.

They have graduate degrees and stable jobs. They take mission trips and work at the local homeless shelters. They contribute to Kickstarter programs and KIVA. They write blogs about how to have a dynamic relationship with God, and with others.  They read all the articles they can find about all the ways they can overcome loneliness. They even devote their own blogs to how to live a fulfilled life.

The irony, of course, is that a person can lead a fulfilled life and still be lonely.

Fulfillment isn’t the answer to loneliness. Companionship and belonging is.

In this socially-disconnected world of ours, to admit that one is lonely or that one experiences loneliness carries a negative stigma. There is undue pressure upon all of us to have the most “friends”, the most “peeps”, the most “followers.”

Yet, for all its negative connotations, loneliness can be a good thing. It is often the very thing that drives us to our knees in search of the Creator who made us.

When we are lonely we are at our most like God. It was his loneliness that led God to create us all.

He created us from his own desire for companionship, and longing to belong to somebody.

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain.






Book Karen