Mark Farist was mowing grass when his wife, Debra, came out of the house and stopped him with an urgent look on her face.
“She told me there was a phone call I needed to take,” Mark told me last week when he and several other family members attended a meeting of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1030 in Cumming, where his uncle, Sgt. Larry Franklin Davis of Gilmer County, was being honored with the bequeathal of a scholarship in his memory.
Davis was killed in Vietnam on Sept. 15, 1970. He had volunteered to do the job of a soldier in his squad, Doug Wickherst, who made the phone call Mark needed to take.
“He called from Arkansas,” Mark said after the scholarship presentation, noting Doug had tracked him down through a call to the Gilmer chamber. “He knew Larry was from Ellijay, and actually reached out to a couple of my uncles, Uncle Jimmy and Uncle Buford (both deceased). It was Doug's turn to run communication line (at their Vietnam outpost), and his 'care package' had just came off the chopper.”
Doug said Sgt. Davis saw how excited everybody was when he got his package in the mail, and told him, “Hey, man, just leave me some. I'll run the wire for you tonight,” Mark related. “Doug went on to tell me the details of what happened. I've gotta believe the sniper that shot him saw he was an NCO (noncommissioned officer, by his insignia). The enemy then lit up that hill and brought in a lot of firepower. They med-evacked the radio guy out (who was wounded), and he lived.”
After that retelling, Doug got “real honest” with Mark on the other end of the line.
“He was very, very humble,” Mark remembered of the conversation from more than 10 years ago. “He said, 'I didn't take it seriously. I was just a happy-go-lucky guy and didn't give a care. Sgt. Davis was a good guy, he'd do anything for you. That was in evidence, and was why he got killed.'”
Doug then told Mark of the tremendous guilt he bore through the years for Larry's death.
“Sadly, Doug told me he'd been in and out of rehab treatment for years,” he said. “I can only imagine the guilt he carried. The phone call had a lot of tears, a lot of pauses. He even talked about substance abuse — I take it that it was alcohol, from survivor's guilt, that was a huge part of it — of him thinking 'It should have been me and not him.'
“I kept assuring him. I said, 'Hey man, nobody in our family feels that way.' So that shows you the depth, and the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), if you will — the emotional, the mental and the anguish, the guilt — of what he has gone through. I really think the phone call was cathartic because he poured out and just kept talking. I didn't try to keep him on the phone necessarily, but he stayed on for around 45 minutes.”
Mark said Doug told him Larry was willing to lead his guys, but “lead by example.”
“Larry was a servant-leader,” he added. “Those weren't Doug's words exactly, but that's what he was describing.”
Debra saw that Mark too was “very emotional” when he got off the call.
“I felt like I needed to keep it together, as I tried to be a witness and encourage him during our conversation,” he said. “The whole theme of the phone call was his guilt. I was shocked that he reached out to me as Larry's nephew. I had reached out to him through an email he'd put on The Wall webpage. He talked about broken relationships he'd been through.
“It was tough. It took a lot of courage for him to call. I told him we serve a God that doesn't make a mistake. And God knew. And our family holds no grudges against you or anybody. Just rest assured it was meant to be. He just kept saying 'Larry was such a good guy, it shoulda been me.' And that they were all just trying to survive.”
Merle Davis Farist, one of Larry's sisters who also attended the event, called her brother “a wonderful, exceptional young man. He was a very good Christian. We all loved him very much. He had a good sense of humor and was laid back. He loved his family, and we loved him. We'll see him again one day.”
An obituary for Douglas "Papa Doug" Dean Wickherst, of Conway, Arkansas, was found online, dated December 2010. He was described as an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. Family members described him as “the greatest fan of Nebraska football, loved to spoil all of his grandchildren and is mostly remembered for putting the needs of others before his own.”
He certainly had a lasting example of the latter in Sgt. Larry Franklin Davis of Gilmer County. Doug attended a church in North Little Rock. Surely he's already seen his sergeant.
Doug wrote the following on thewall-usa.com remembrance page for Larry:
“Remembering you on this Memorial Day (2004). I was with you on that day, you have been with me since.” — 1st Squad, B Company, 3/8 Infantry
Mark Millican is a former staff writer for the Daily Citizen-News.