By Louise Muth
A soldier from Alexandria who went Missing in Action (MIA) during the Vietnam War when his helicopter was downed by enemy fire, got a special tribute last month.
First Lieutenant Lawrence Eugene Lilly was honored at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial at the Mount Vernon Recreation Center in Alexandria during a ceremony during which his name was inscribed on the wall at the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which now honors the service and supreme sacrifice of 68 soldiers from Alexandria who were killed or MIA in the Vietnam War.
Shot Down in Cambodia
On March 17, 1971, when Lilly was just 25 years old, he was the co-pilot of an AH-1G Cobra helicopter in Kratie Province, Cambodia, on a visual reconnaissance mission with pilot Captain David P. Schweitzer. The two were searching for the crew of a Huey helicopter which had been shot down earlier that day when their Cobra was also downed by Viet Cong enemy fire.
A command-and-control helicopter swooped down to rescue Schweitzer and Lilly, who were under intense small-arms fire from an enemy ground force. Schweitzer was able to use the Cobra as cover while moving to the rescue helicopter because the exits from the Cobra’s tandem cockpit were on opposite sides, and his exit was on the side away from hostile fire. Lilly’s exit, however, was on the other side, directly in the path of the incoming fire. He was wounded out in the open as he ran toward the rescuers. Meanwhile, the rescue helicopter itself was struck by enemy fire, wounding two crew members and forcing the aircraft to depart. Lilly was last observed motionless on his back near the Cobra, with blood wounds visible on his chest, still being fired upon by Viet Cong forces. He has not been located since.
Mom and Sister Still Mourn
Lilly’s 93 year-old mother, Jeanette Lilly, and his sister, Sue Harvey, are residents of Alexandria, and were in attendance at the event.
“The hurt never ends and we have never forgotten. You move on, but you leave a little piece of your heart behind,” says Harvey. “My brother’s colleagues from his Army unit in Vietnam vividly remember him and keep the strong camaraderie spirit. They include us in reunions and have special religious services in his honor.”
Harvey says she is grateful for opportunities to honor her brother like the inscription on the wall near the Rocky Versace statue.
“My family has always been part of the military. At one point, my husband, dad and brother were all in Vietnam at the same time. Although military life moved us around a great deal, Alexandria is home and where the heart is because so many key memories are here. That’s why the inscription on this memorial here is especially meaningful,” said Harvey.
Jeannette and Susan are looking forward to visiting the Rocky Versace Memorial often since it is close to home.
Lilly’s name is also inscribed onto the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. There is a gravesite with his name on it in Arlington National Cemetery, but his remains are not there. Harvey is hopeful that one day her brother’s remains will be returned to the family to help them with closure on their great loss.
Harvey herself worked for the US Army as a civilian. She expressed gratitude to the Army for what she described as a real commitment to soldiers who never made it home. She describes many immediate attempts to locate her brother after the crash, including by some pilots who went back to the site and called his name on a loudspeaker. In 1980, there was a resurgence of trying to find remains of MIA soldiers, so efforts continued. The Army went back several times and even talked to enemy combatants to see if anyone remembered anything from that day. They found remnants of Lilly’s helicopter, and dug at several sites, but never found his remains.
The statue serves as a poignant reminder that every heroic soldier from Alexandria in the Vietnam War was a unique and special part of someone’s life here at home. The inscription at the base of the statue reads like a fill-in-the-blank description of each soldier: “My son is… Was… He Often Did… Does… His Eyes Are… Were Brown.”
To that end, Lilly’s sister fills in the blanks about her brother this way: “My brother was honest, loyal and compassionate… He was open and connected easily to people… His eyes were blue.”