August 02, 2020

Lack of facts about MIA prolongs grief

It had been 12 years since I spoke with the Doritys about their only son, Dickie, who went to Vietnam as an Army seaman in 1970 and disappeared without a trace.

Back then, sitting with the family in their kitchen in Dover-Foxcroft, I glimpsed the inexpressible sadness and frustration people endure when a loved one goes to war and is listed forever after as “missing in action.” The tragic mystery still gnawed at them after all those years.

Richard “Dickie” Dority, 19, left Da Nang in a landing craft one November day and cruised up the coast of South Vietnam. He and his crew were to unload supplies at the port of Tam My, but the next day only their empty vessel was found. There were no bullet holes in it, no signs of a struggle.

Army officials told the Doritys that since no Viet Cong had been sighted in the vicinity, there was no reason to believe their son was taken prisoner. The family received a death certificate in 1971 — and Dickie’s medals — and heard nothing more.

Then in 1986, from the declassified testimony of another seaman in the area that day, the family learned that the port had indeed been “crawling” with enemy soldiers.

For the Doritys, the document lent credibility to what they had always suspected: Their son had been captured and therefore might still be alive somewhere.

“Until we get his remains back, I can’t believe for a fact that he’s dead,” Delma Dority said of her son at the time. “How can I?”

I recalled that visit recently as I passed a Bangor cemetery that was being decorated for the Memorial Day weekend. There were small American flags everywhere, and several people placing flowers on the graves of loved ones killed in war. It occurred to me that the Doritys, along with 14 other Maine families of Vietnam-era MIAs and more than 2,000 nationwide, might still have difficulty participating fully in this simple but important annual ritual. For some, perhaps, the absence of even one clear fact about a loved one’s fate might still deprive them of that sense of closure through which the rest of us eventually find solace after the loss of a child.

So I called the Doritys the other day, hoping to hear that they had found their peace at last.

“Your feelings don’t change, of course,” Mrs. Dority said. “My husband said to me just last night, in fact, that hardly a day goes by that he doesn’t think of the boy. That’s what he calls Dickie — the boy. We always wish that some day we could see him again, although we don’t really believe we will. Not in this life, not after all these years.”

She hesitated a moment, then added quietly: “But I guess there will always be that hope.”

Over the years, the Doritys have found strength in religion and comfort in their close family. Their three daughters have blessed them with nine grandchildren, all of whom know lots of stories about their curly-haired, devilish Uncle Dickie and how much joy he once brought to the family.

“I’m so thankful for what we have in our lives,” Mrs. Dority said. “But, yes, Memorial Day is sad for us in a way. We have no place to lay flowers. We’ve never had a memorial service, but someday we’d love to.”

The Doritys have a family burial plot in a nearby cemetery. There is a spot reserved for Richard and Delma, and one for their beloved Dickie. None is yet marked by a headstone.

“We haven’t been able to do that yet,” Mrs. Dority said. “We’ve talked of putting a stone there with just his birth date on it and leaving the end date blank. And we will be able to do that in the future, some day down the road, but not just yet.”

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