On Monday morning the Army, which he had served so valiantly, buried Dean K. Phillips with the full panoply of military honors that was his due. This much-decorated citizen soldier and fellow Vietnam veteran was laid to rest in his uniform, the ribbons on his chest a solemn testament to the professionalism he had brought to his calling in the now distant rice paddies of an earlier and more troubled era. In the end the ravages of cancer were able to effect that which another formidable, though less insidious, enemy had been unable to accomplish almost 20 years previously. Throughout it all, Dean's courage served as a beacon to all of us who loved and admired him.
As his friends and family gathered at the grave site in a stand of pines beneath a slate gray August sky i Arlington National Cemetery to pay their last respects, I reflected on what his passing meant to me and on the special covenant that binds men who have experienced the horrors of war. I had been to see him one last time shortly before he died, not because we were particularly close, but because ours was a kinship forged in the bloody crucible of Vietnam, and because I felt an urgent need to honor him for what he had endured. He had by then become a shell of his former robust self, the cataclysmic virulence of the cancer having almost run its course, but his handshake remained firm and his thinking clear.
He had been to see "Rambo" several weeks earlier, which he disliked for a number of reasons, among them the facile way the picture treated death and the distortedly romantic gloss it placed on combat. Dean knew better, and we discussed the new patriotism and the so-called revisionist view of Vietnam at length. He had enlisted in the Army in the mid-'60s despite having been granted a student deferment to attend law school, and he had refused a commission out of a desire to serve in the ranks. Often at odds with the Army as an institution, he nevertheless passionately loved its soldiers, and his service in Vietnam earned him two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He told me that he did not understand the cyclical view of patriotism, and he was realistic enough to know that no amount of revisionism could erase the obloquy returning veterans faced as they attempted to enter the mainstream of society in the late '60s and early '70s. He had devoted the remainder of his professional life to easing that transition by his tireless work as an attorney on issues affecting veterans.
I spent several hours with Dean that sultry summer afternoon, and I watched him mask his pain as he acted the good host and tended to the needs of his company. I could see also by his conversation and demeanor that he was putting his house in order and preparing himself for the final battle. As I readied myself to leave, he took my hand in both of his and told me that he hoped he had been able to do some good for mankind in the time he had been given. I do not know if his final words to me were a question or a declaration, but I was only able to squeeze his hands by way of affirmation in what I now regard as a woefully inadequate response.
Dean Phillips died at home with his family a month later, beaten but not bowed by an enemy whose onslaughts he was powerless ultimately to turn aside. He was 42 years old and left behind grieving parents, a loving wife and daughter, and a 2-year-old son who will develop at best only a vicarious insight into his father's enormous stature.
He is gone now, joined at last with his beloved brothers whose names appear on the Vietnam Memorial, most of whom died themselves in their teens and early twenties well before their time, like Dean, and I am as yet unable to derive any meaning or take any solace from his death. I know only that he touched my heart, and I am richer for having shared his life.