ROWLEY — Allan Gawrys is one of nearly 600 Vietnam veterans, and one of 19 from the state, who will be inducted into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's "In Memory" program this year.
Gawrys, who served two tours in Vietnam as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, died on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 29, 1985, at the age of 34.
Though his family knew his death was caused by health complications from exposure to Agent Orange — a powerful herbicide used by the U.S. military to destroy trees and crops in Vietnam — it wasn't until recently that his death was officially declared "service related."
The "In Memory" program honors veterans who died as a result of their service in Vietnam, but are not eligible for inscription on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, commonly known as The Wall, in Washington. Instead, these veterans are included in the virtual In Memory Honor Roll, which includes a remembrance page for each person.
Gawrys, along with 592 other service members, will officially be honored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund at its annual "In Memory" ceremony Sept. 26.
"For many Vietnam veterans, coming home from Vietnam was just the beginning of a whole new fight," Jim Knotts, president and CEO of the nonprofit, said in a statement.
"Many never fully recovered, either physically or emotionally, from their experiences," he continued. "As these veterans pass, it is our duty and solemn promise to welcome them home to the place that our nation has set aside to remember our Vietnam veterans."
Gawrys was 17 when he enlisted in the Marines, 18 when he left for Vietnam and 19 when he returned in 1970. Just as he left for Vietnam, his brother Kenny, also a Marine and still a Rowley resident today, was returning from his own tour of duty.
Two months later, Allan Gawrys married Bonnie, who was 17 at the time. If he was still alive, they would have been married 50 years this October, she said.
Though he didn't like to talk about it, Gawrys struggled with nightmares and other horrors as a result of what he experienced during war, Bonnie said. And like other members of the service, Gawrys was instructed not to tell people he had been to Vietnam because he would "be spit on," she said.
Even to this day, Vietnam is a contentious topic for people to discuss.
"It took 35 years for him to get honored for his service and the sacrifice that he made," she said, adding that several Facebook support groups have been helpful in her efforts to cope.
Bonnie Gawrys, who never remarried or considered dating in any of the years since his death, said Allan was like her "high school sweetheart."
"He was handsome," she said. "All the girls used to chase him, but I caught him. He was the nicest guy, so loving."
Gawrys was also a loving father to his only daughter, Melissa, who was 7 at the time of his death.
"God gave him a daughter and he thought the world of her," Bonnie said. "They were just inseparable."
Now, years later, Bonnie Gawrys wishes her husband could be here to see her daughter grown up.
Melissa, recently married, is the mother of an 18-month-old son named Landon Allan Dixey — the middle name being a tribute to her late father.
Though she wishes her husband could have been honored for his service sooner, Bonnie Gawrys is proud to see his legacy live on.
"After 35 years, I know now that he is smiling now," she said. "He's taking care of me."
The 2020 "In Memory" ceremony will be shown live at www.facebook.com/VietnamVeteransMemorialFund on Sept. 26 at 10 a.m.
The program, which was created in 1993, has since honored more than 4,700 veterans. For more information or to apply to have a loved one honored in 2021, go to www.vvmf.org/inmemory.