July 12, 2017ALMONT —When Coleen Bayer carries the panel of the Moving Wall that bears her brother's name, a flood of memories returns.
She feels a familiar embrace, one she felt almost 50 years ago when the life of Thomas R. Gregson ended too soon.
A big brother, protector, role model and friend, Tom's presence makes itself known in the form of a warm hug. Coleen feels it deep inside her soul as she hefts the panel to it's proper spot on the Moving Wall, and smiles through tears at the thought that she is again bringing her brother to another place where he'll be acknowledged and remembered.
"It is like carrying him," she says of moving the Wall's panel. "The emotion that comes over me is overwhelming. I cry every time."
Life of promise
Tom is a standout in many ways during his years at Capac High School. A popular, easy-going young man, he's elected class president, served as president of the FFA, and lights up the track with his athletic prowess. Some of the records he sets before he graduates in 1965 still stand today.
Like many of his peers, shortly after graduation Tom is drafted into the Army to serve in Vietnam.
But not before he makes plans to marry his sweetheart Kathy Meikle, who also lives in Capac. They plan to tie the knot just as soon as Tom's service is up.
Things amp up right away for Tom. An SP4, Tom serves two years on the frontlines in Vietnam, and is happy and relieved when he's discharged on March 8, 1969. After two long years and much death and destruction, he's finally heading home.
Plans and premonitions
Plans are going full steam ahead for Tom and Kathy's big day. It's a Saturday afternoon, and Kathy and her mom, and Coleen—then 14-years-old—are at Coleen's grandma's house in Capac to plot out the big event.
Coleen's grandma is a seamstress and she's going to make her granddaughter's dress. Tom made it clear he wanted his little sister to be in the wedding party, and Coleen's excited to be included.
In the midst of the animated, excited conversation, Coleen grows cold. A thought rises to the surface of her brain— "My God, there's not going to be a wedding."
Shivering, she runs to the bedroom. Her grandma follows, concerned and curious about what's wrong.
"Tom just hugged me," Coleen says. "I know that he's dead."
On the way to school on Thursday, Coleen sees the "army cars" turning down her road. She turns to her family members and says, "see, they're going to tell us that Tom died."
Still, she hopes she's wrong and believes that since she didn't see those cars driving up her driveway, maybe her premonition is wrong.
She finds out otherwise when her aunt and uncle come up to Capac Jr./Sr. High School to take Coleen out of school. She asked if something happened to Grandma or Grandpa. The answer was no.
"Tom died, didn't he," she asks.
Coleen still clings to hope. "Well, If I pass those Army guys, then he isn't dead."
Unfortunately, she didn't pass them. They were at her home waiting to tell each and every family member the sad news. Thomas R. Gregson's life ended at 2 p.m. on March 8, 1969.
Two weeks later, Tom was returned to his hometown, and laid to rest at the Catholic cemetery in Imlay City.
Message from beyond
About the same time, Coleen receives a letter in the mail. She does a double- and triple-take when she sees the envelope. She wonders if it's a cruel joke someone is playing, but knows that's not the case because she recognizes her brother's handwriting. It's a letter from Tom.
"He talks about how he had just gotten there (a new location in Vietnam) and they were setting up camp. There were no fox holes for them to jump in yet," Coleen says.
Tom describes a transport plane that's on its way to pick him up to take him home, and talks about hearing heaving bombing in the background.
"He says the bombing is getting closer and closer," Coleen says.
When the plane arrives, it quickly fills up with soldiers ready to make their way to U.S. shores. In the letter, Tom says they're notified that two seats are needed to transport a badly wounded soldier, and ask if someone will surrender their seat. When no one makes a move, Tom steps up and gets off the plane.
"He started writing again, and in the letter he says 'I don't think I'm going to get out of here,'" Coleen says.
He tells his little sister that she's going to have to bury the hatchet with her o brother Donny, that the two have to learn to get along.
And that's that.
Later she learns that the camp was hit with enemy mortar, and Tom was severely wounded by shrapnel. Though we was transported to a hospital, he never emerged from a medically induced coma and died.
Always coming home
While she'll never come face to face with her beloved brother Tom, Coleen feels his presence every single time she goes to the memorials in Capac, Imlay City, Lapeer and Port Huron. She also remembers his embrace when she carries the Moving Wall panel that bears his name.
On Monday, she feels that bond yet again, and with tear filled eyes, says yet another goodbye to her brother.
"To put his panel away is filled with emotion, too," she says. "I talk to him and say 'I'm putting you back to go to another city so other people can see you and remember and honor you.'"
Coleen says the Moving Wall is an important reminder for all to see.
She's grateful to the Lapeer County Vietnam Veterans Association, and to the Almont American Legion and other volunteers who made the Almont visit possible.
She says it's a blessing to be able to run her fingers over her brother's name, and for the opportunity to offer respect and a proper thank you to all those who served in Vietnam.
"The Moving Wall is there to see how many thousands of young people died and how they all died in a senseless war," she says. "The way they (the veterans) were treated afterwards was just terrible. The Moving Wall helps us hold the Vietnam vets up there in the high esteem they deserve."
For more photos of the Moving Wall's visit to Almont, turn to pages 4-A and 8-A.
Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.