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Remembering the life and death of an American soldier 50 years later

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As obituaries go, this one stood out with the first two words alone:

“Yo Gregory.”

It was published Nov. 4 in the Journal, the anniversary of Gregory’s death 50 years ago. Such commemorative obits are not uncommon, but typically they are published annually in the early years after a loved one passes away. A check of the archives indicates that no similar tribute has ever appeared for Gregory, not even in those early years.

Half a century has passed now, and someone out there apparently felt that this year Gregory’s death should not pass again in silence without a public declaration of how much he is still missed.

How much he still matters.

SPF4 Gregory L. Phillips grew up in Albuquerque and served as a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam. He was 20 when he was killed in action in 1968.

He was Army SP4 Gregory L. Phillips from Albuquerque, killed in action during the Vietnam War. He was 20.

“Albuquerque was your hometown that you were always proud of,” the obituary continues, its tone more pensive and solemn than it began. “But now, does anyone else carry your memory and remembrance? Much has changed, and deaths so long ago seem pointless now. You were taken away, never to have the experience of holding grandchildren or of becoming an old veteran like the rest of us.”

The obituary caught the eye of another old veteran. In the short time it took to read it, those eyes were filled with tears.

To Arthur Waskey, it was one of the simplest and most moving obituaries he had ever read.

“Someone remembered he was from Albuquerque and, more importantly, remembered him and did not let him be forgotten in his hometown,” Waskey told me in an email.

He wanted to know more about this soldier from Albuquerque and the person who would not let his memory die.

And so, yo, this is what I learned.

Gregory was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph E. Phillips, one of five siblings and a resident of Albuquerque for all his short life. He graduated from Manzano High School in 1967 and quickly enlisted in the Army, did his basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and attended helicopter school at Fort Eustis, Va.

He arrived in Vietnam mid-February 1968 with D Troop, 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry of the 25th Infantry Division. It was the middle of the bloodiest week in the war, with 543 U.S. soldiers killed in action and 2,547 wounded as the deadly Tet Offensive raged on.

He celebrated his 20th birthday that July. Less that four months later, he was dead.

Details of his final mission vary somewhat, dependent as they are on the memories of men who would just as soon forget the horrors they experienced flying missions over Hau Nghia province, west of Saigon.

Gregory Lee Phillips, 20, is buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery next to his father, Joseph Phillips, who passed away in 1971, almost three years to the day that Gregory died in Vietnam in 1968. (Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund)

On the evening of Nov. 4, 1968, he was a crew chief for one of five Huey helicopters in the process of extracting soldiers from the field when they came under enemy fire. Phillips’ aircraft was struck with an RPG, sending shrapnel into his chest. He died quickly.

News of his death shared the front page of the Nov. 7 Journal with the election of Richard Nixon as president and the re-election of New Mexico Gov. David Cargo.

For several days that December, his family published a small classified ad thanking people for their “kind thoughts and efforts” during their time of bereavement.

On Feb. 20, 1969, almost a year to the day after Phillips had arrived in Vietnam, the Journal published a photograph of his parents accepting four posthumous medals for their son.

After that, Phillips no longer appeared in newspaper articles until this month when someone placed that obituary in the paper.

“Yes, we were soldiers once, and young, and your loss is not forgotten,” the obituary concludes. “Continue to rest in peace.”

The identity of the person who placed the obituary will remain confidential at his request. Though his remembrance to Phillips is a public testimony, it also remains a private agony.

His efforts, however, can remind us that we must never forget those like SP4 Gregory L. Phillips who were soldiers once. With another Veterans Day gone, let us commit to honoring those men and women whose stories of service to country have faded with the passage of time and the passing of those who knew them but whose memory and remembrance must still be carried on, never pointless, never forgotten.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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