Raymond Dodson survived the Vietnam War and, decades later, the coronavirus disease. Here he is starring in the City of Woodstock’s virtual Memorial Day ceremony.
Photo: City of Woodstock
Photo: City of Woodstock

Memorial Day events move online amid coronavirus pandemic

Raymond Dodson’s battle with the coronavirus disease began back in February with a persistent dry cough. In the ensuing weeks, the Woodstock resident ran a fever, suffered from dizzy spells and had trouble communicating with his wife, Penny.

Northside Hospital Cherokee in Canton admitted him in late March and diagnosed him with COVID-19. Hooked up to a ventilator, Dodson lost more than 30 pounds as he fought for his life. It did not look good for the 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran. But Dodson pulled through, finally emerging from a nursing home in April.

Flanked by uniformed policemen, Dodson recently set aside his walker and placed a red, white and blue wreath at Woodstock’s memorial to veterans. The city filmed the event for a virtual Memorial Day ceremony that will air online Monday. In the video, doves will be released and 2019 Miss Georgia Victoria Hill will sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

“I had policemen on each side in case I started wobbling,” said Dodson, whose late father, Joseph, served in the U.S. Army and as a Woodstock fire chief. “It just meant a lot to me because my daddy was in World War II. He always wanted to do it, but he got really sick before he could be able to lay the wreath up there.”

Raymond Dodson of Woodstock served with the U.S. military in Turkey before deploying to Vietnam in 1968. He participated in a wreath-laying ceremony Woodstock filmed and will air online Monday. It just meant a lot to me because my daddy was in World War II," he said. "He always wanted to do it, but he got really sick before he could be able to lay the wreath up there.
Photo: Family photo

Other municipalities, veterans’ cemeteries and national parks across the nation have come up with similarly creative ways to honor the U.S. military’s fallen without large crowds amid the pandemic. To fight the spread of the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is still recommending against gathering in groups.

Making the best of Memorial Day

Andersonville National Historic Site, where nearly 13,000 Union soldiers died during the Civil War, on Monday will stream online the playing of taps at its cemetery. Marietta National Cemetery and Georgia National Cemetery in Canton will hold wreath-laying ceremonies and observe moments of silence. None of those events will be open to the public.

The Veterans Affairs Department is barring groups from placing flags at its cemeteries, a Memorial Day tradition for Boy Scouts at the VA’s cemetery in Marietta. U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican, sent the VA a letter this month, asking it to allow small groups.

“I believe that the process of placing flags on gravesites can be accomplished while still adhering to CDC, state, and local safety guidelines,” wrote Loeffler, who serves on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

A spokesman for the VA’s National Cemetery Administration said people are welcome to visit the agency’s cemeteries Memorial Day weekend and “place individual flags on graves to honor friends and family. We ask that all visitors adhere to CDC, state and local health, safety, and travel guidelines.”

Michael Pardee, 17, who is working toward his Eagle Scout rank, has participated in public Memorial Day flag-placing events at the VA’s Marietta cemetery for years. He will make the best of it Monday by posting on his troop’s Facebook page a tribute to a fallen Marine he discovered while searching the Internet: Lance Cpl. Stephen F. Johnson, 20, of Marietta. Johnson was killed in Iraq in 2006. Through some digging online, Michael found a moving letter Johnson wrote his family before he died.

“They shouldn’t go unnoticed,” Michael said of veterans like Johnson.

Michael Pardee, and his mother, Tisa, have found rewarding ways to commemorate Memorial Day amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Photo: Family photo

Michael’s mother, Tisa, was disappointed in the VA’s decision barring groups from its cemeteries. Yet, she is grateful it prompted her son’s rewarding research.

“This year has been more meaningful for my son than any year that we have participated,” she said. “He was pretty overwhelmed by it.”

She and her son plan to watch Woodstock’s Memorial Day ceremony when it airs online Monday at 10 a.m. For their video, city officials filmed members of Cub Scouts Pack 625 reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They also filmed John Newport, 78, leading members of the Marine Corps League Woodstock detachment’s Ceremonial Rifle Team in firing three volleys. Everyone sought to keep their distance during the filming.

“The Marines — we are trained to run to the sound of the guns. But we don’t know where the guns are,” Newport, a retired Marine Corps master sergeant who did two tours in Vietnam, said of the pandemic. “It’s invisible.”

The miracle

For his part in the video, Dodson gingerly walked from Woodstock’s downtown gazebo past the fountain and to the memorial. City firemen awaited him there. One man raised the American flag as Dodson placed the wreath and then saluted.

Cub Scouts Pack 625 members Guy Stearns, Collin Mervis, Robert Walker, and Jamison Kind recite the Pledge of Allegiance for a virtual Memorial Day ceremony Woodstock will air online Monday. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Memorial Day is personal for Dodson. He served with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1968, guarding U.S. military installations and planes.

Raymond Dodson served with the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1968, guarding U.S. military installations and planes.
Photo: Family photo

The trouble started in February, when he and his wife, Penny, started coughing. They tested negative for the flu at a clinic in Woodstock. They seemed to get better before developing what they each thought were sinus infections. Doctors prescribed them antibiotics. Raymond did not improve. At one point, he couldn’t understand Penny as she urged him to swallow his pills. Penny called the fire department. An ambulance came to pick him up.

“The first day he was on the ventilator, they did not say he was not going to make it,” Penny said, “but you could tell they didn’t think he was going to make it.”

She was never tested but suspects she contracted COVID-19 and recovered from it. Raymond remained in the hospital for more than two weeks before moving to a nursing home in Canton for 10 more days.

“I lost about 34 pounds,” Raymond said. “I needed to go on a diet but that is the wrong way to go. I wouldn’t recommend that for anybody.”

His wife attributes his survival to the care he got at the hospital and nursing home and to the prayers he received from their family and friends, including fellow worshippers at First Baptist Church in Woodstock.

“Maybe God has got something he is supposed to do some time. He is not through with him yet because all indications were that he was not going to make it,” said Penny, 71, a retired U.S. postal worker. “It’s a miracle. That’s all I can say. It is a miracle.”

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