They say, “Time heals all wounds.” Surely the person who penned that never lost a child. Or a brother, at an age when they were too young to understand.
The Dexter family of Milbank has felt the heartache of that loss since 1966, when their son and brother Ronald was killed in Vietnam. Most people acquainted with families who lose a son or daughter tend to avoid the subject. Most families who have lost a child say the worst thing is when people ignore and forget.
Clifford (96) and Lillian (91) Dexter, sat down with The Valley Express to help us remember their son Ronald.
Ronald Clifford Dexter was a US Marine and his dad Clifford shared, “Ronald never considered any other branch and that is probably because I was a Marine. He enlisted right out of high school along with good friends and classmates, Leon Pepka and Tommy Schafer. Tommy lived across the street from us on Viola Street.”
In the Dexter’s clean and tidy apartment are photos of Ronald. You can’t help but notice Ronald’s wide and cheerful grin or how sharp he looked in his Blue Dress uniform with the white, peaked cap.
As the Dexter’s continued to share memories it was easy to envision a young boy who played with tiny, plastic, green, army men and then the teenage version — a left-handed baseball pitcher for the Milbank team. His mother said, “I still remember trying to keep those baseball uniforms white.” Ronald was fun-loving and social and Clifford said he had beautiful handwriting but most importantly was always a gentleman. “If he was walking to school and came upon a girl, he would carry her books. For some reason, I remember him carrying Shirley Lundberg’s books a few times.”
Clifford also recalls when Ronald bought his first car. “It was a ’36 Chevy and he paid five dollars for it. It was such a great price because it had a terrible knock. It needed a lot of other repairs, too. Ronald and his friend, Warren Storm, started to tear into the car and found a bent push rod. That was actually lucky because Warren’s dad and uncle ran the blacksmith shop in Milbank and the boys got the rod straightened. New brakes and few other repairs later,” Clifford said, “The car purred like a kitten.”
Lillian added, “The car was a faded blue and Ronald and his friends painted it a bright orange in our garage on Viola Street.” She stopped talking and the couple looked at each other and laughed. Then, Lillian continued, “There’s probably still orange paint on those garage walls.”
“I told Ron after all that hard work if the car ever clunked out, I would replace it. With high hopes, he drove the heck out of it, but it just kept going,” Clifford said.
Lillian also recalled the last time Ronald came home on leave. “It was nearly Christmas and I was in my bed at St. Bernard’s Hospital. Our daughter, Lisa, had been born on December 17. Ronald walked into my room and it was such a special surprise for me to see him. I remember Ronald saying, “I can’t believe I have a sister!”
But Ronald was destined to never get to know Lisa, see her graduate, or go to her wedding. Just as he was never to wrestle on the living room floor with his brother Doug who just turned 10 and his brother Bruce who was 14. Ronald was only 19 when he was killed nine months later on September 19. The sole casualty of the Vietnam War from Grant County.
Coincidentally, during our interview, the Dexter’s phone rang and it was Ronald’s platoon sergeant, George Gunzl. While Clifford stepped away to visit with George, Lillian explained that George calls to visit every year on September 19. He refers to Clifford and Lillian as Pop and Mom Dexter, which seems unusual until you know the rest of the story.
During the war, Sergeant Gunzl had lost 17 soldiers from his platoon of 38. After the war ended, he contacted the families of all 17 of those men. Most other families were angry and blamed Segeant Gunzl for their son’s death. The Dexters did not blame him. Sergeant Gunzl said he wanted to honor their son and hoped to get to know them. Clifford said, “George was from Florida and so we offered to meet him in Minneapolis, but George said he wanted to see where Ronald was raised.” A visit to Milbank was plannned and Clifford said, ” I didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know much about him. He could have been green, black, yellow, or blue. Later, we found out when he reached the edge of Milbank, he pulled his car over to stop and think quite a while. Finally, he gathered his courage and drove up to our house.”
“There were quite a few Dexters waiting to meet Ronald’s sergeant,” Lillian said. “And I asked George where his parents were from. He replied he had none. So, I said, ‘We will adopt you.” He responded, ‘I’m low maintenance.”’
Since then, George has come every year for Milbank’s Memorial Day program. He has gotten close to the family and a lot of buddies at the VFW in Milbank. He even sends Pop and Mom Dexter Christmas presents each year.
Sergeant Gunzl accompanied Lillian, Clifford, and Lisa to Pierre when South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds dedicated the South Dakota Vietnam War Memorial in September 2006. Clifford said, “After the dedication, Mrs. Rounds invited all the families of the fallen soldiers to the Governor’s mansion, where they held a backyard barbecue and served grilled steaks. Governor Rounds was just like everyone else. He sat and visited like we were family.”
In 1982, the Dexters flew to Washington, DC, to attend the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — The Wall of Faces. Clifford remembers sitting in chairs in the basement of a cathedral listening as the nearly 59,000 names were read. “Suddenly,” he said, “everything turned completely silent.” Excitedly Lillian added, “I looked up just as President Ronald Reagan walked right by me. I could have reached out and touched him.”
Of course, the Dexters never miss the Memorial Day Service in Milbank. This year, due to COVID-19, George will not fly in from Florida. But, the Dexters will be there watching from their car. Clifford said, “We will be parked out there someplace near the Memorial site at the Milbank Cemetery on Dexter Avenue. The street is named in Ronald’s memory, and Lillian said, “I think it’s real nice the street that was chosen for our son Ronald is right by the memorial.”
It’s one small way a city can remember its hero. A young man who died so others could live in freedom. So, on this Memorial Day, take a moment to remember Ronald Dexter and others like him who made the ultimate sacrifice for your freedom. And as you go about your business tomorrow and every day after that, don’t be afraid to remember Ronald and thank him silently or aloud. And think of John Adams, too, who said: “Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make a good use of it.”