Remembering the Fallen . . . Norman Ottis Copeland

His name was Norman Ottis Copeland. He was my cousin. He died in Vietnam.

He died more than forty-five years ago on the other side of the world but he has lingered in the landscape of my mind for my entire life.

On this Memorial Day, I remember my cousin and introduce him to you.

Remembrance sites such as Together We Served give details of his unit and last mission. Other sites like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund provide a picture of him opening a gift.

He is barely twenty years old in the picture and his wedding ring is clearly visible. He had his whole life before him in that moment.

He was a gunner on a CH-46A Sea Knight with a mission to rescue three seriously wounded Marines near Hue City. On the way to the injured Marines the aircraft received enemy fire and the pilot had to abort the mission.

The damage was so severe the aircraft did not make it back to their base at Phu Bai. The report indicates the aircraft “entered an uncontrolled pitch-up, rolled inverted, crashed, and burned.” The helicopter gunship flying support landed and rescued two of the crew, one of whom survived. Norman died in the crash.

I only know those things because I read them online, but let me share two personal memories with you.

I have memories of young adults from our church coming to our house. I remember a lot of laughter and clowning around and I remember music. Specifically, I remember standing near the piano as a young six-year-old boy and looking up at everyone singing around the piano while my mother played.

I remember him singing. He had a rich baritone voice, a wide smile, and a joyful presence. That’s it. Just a moment of incandescent glorious music and joy.

The other memory I have is somber.

I am holding my mom’s hand as we walk up the aisle at Luckey Baptist Church outside DeSoto, MO. We walk up to the closed flag draped casket, she places her hand upon it, and cries.

I remember walking up the hill behind the church, too.

It was a cold February day in 1968. We stood around an open grave, a trumpeter blew “Taps,” and we all said good bye to him.

When he died he was newly married, not yet twenty-one years old, and in Vietnam less than three months.

Even though his death occurred more than forty-five years ago, and I was just six years old at the time of his death, he has remained ever in my memory. I have wondered why I have remembered him over the years.

Maybe it was because years later his younger brother, Denver, introduced me to the faith I live by even today. Maybe it was because as a young boy growing up on a steady diet of World War II movies on television he was the only person I knew who was a hero to me.

I like to think I remember him for that singular moment when he was gathered around the piano singing gospel songs with his friends. He was tall and full of life. His face was lit up and radiated joy. The music was beautiful.

Yes, that is the reason I remember. That is the memory to which I cling even to this day.

Do you have anyone you are remembering this Memorial Day?