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Local students and citizens show respect to late Sgt. Rodney Griffin

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 12:09 pm

More Community R-VI students pay their respects.

More Community R-VI students pay their respects.

By James Smith
Centralia Fireside Guard
More than 2,000 lonely flags fluttered in the rainy wind Saturday morning along Highway 22 between Thompson and Centralia.
Before going through that stretch, residents and students in Martinsburg and Laddonia lined up along Highway 54/19 to pay tribute to the late Sgt. Rodney Griffin. Students were from the Community R-VI and St. Joseph School Districts.
Although the clouds held off the sunrise, the flags were lit by the headlights of hundreds of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders as they headed east to Mexico, on their way to escort Sgt. Rodney Griffin back home to Centralia.
Mike Engert formerly of Centralia, made the drive from Purcell, OK, was waiting outside Centralia High School, chatting with local veteran David Luke and handing out red, white and blue star spangled lapel crosses.
He was sharing a childhood memory of Griffin, with whom Engert said he played war with around the railroad tracks at the intersection of Rodney Griffin Drive and Singleton, a spot now adorned with a memorial to Griffin.
“We hid under the bridge when the train came. . . Now after 45 years, he and his family will have peace, the peace that God grants us . . . Rodney’s’ family was notified on February 9, his brother’s birthday, that was no coincidence, it was God’s grace.”
Inside more than 800 people filled the chairs set up one tarp-covered gym floor, the bleachers and the reserve bleachers behind them.
They listened with rapt attention as speakers Larry Hatfield, Sherry Medley, Bill Debo, Gary Prenger and Robert Petty shared thoughts and memories regarding the man many call Centralia’s greatest hero. Many of those listening had waited hours in the sputtering rain for the motorcade carrying Griffin’s remains to make the 14-mile trip from Mexico to CHS, escorted by the Patriot Guard motorcyclists, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Centralia Police Department.
Ball, a captain with the United States Army Honor Guard was the memorial’s first speaker. He said Griffin’s memory and heroism were his inspiration. Trying to hold back tears he told the audience how Griffin’s memory kept him going during the toughest times of his service. “Sgt. Rodney Griffin, the days when I was ready give up, his memory the inspiration that kept me going: ‘Sgt. Rodney Griffin, always remember.’”
He and Griffin shared a bond across the years. “We came from the same small town and shared the same uniform,” Ball said. “He paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country and never came home. Well Rodney, you are home, home after 45 years, you have received the hero’s welcome you so richly deserve.”
The next speaker was CHS classmate and fellow soldier, Sgt. Larry Hatfield, U.S. Air Force, retired.  He shared some fond memories: “Rodney was full of live and loved everyone,” Hatfield said. “He was also meaner than a snake and loved to dance.”
Looking over the packed gym he said: “I remember Centralia being a very safe town, a very friendly town, a very caring town. I think this crowd shows these traits have stood the test of time.”
Hatfield shared memories about how on weekends they would go to the local pizza parlor and empty their pockets to buy a pizza. “Even if we didn’t have enough, we would go anyway. Rodney was always confident he could find a friend to go in on us for a pizza, and with that smile, that charm, nine of 10 times he found someone.”
He also talked about the summer they were able to sneak into the local drive-in though the back fence and the owner’s turning a blind eye to their high jinks. “The owner’s generosity was another example of Centralia’s generosity.”
He also shared his last memories, visiting Griffin and his wife Donna at their home in Tidball’s Trailer Court. “I was home on a weekend pass and learned that Rodney w as home visiting and had just received orders for his new assignment, one in Southeast Asia. “We talked about married life, life in the army, life in the air force and his upcoming deployment.”
They also talked, Hatfield said, about what he called “Rodney’s inability to say goodbye. I asked Rodney to be careful, to be safe and to come home. Rodney put on that $million smile and said ‘I’ll see you in 12 months.’ But today after many, many prayers and long years, he is home.”
CHS classmate Sherry Sewell said Griffin would always remain young in their hearts and memories while the rest of them turned grey.
“He liked to drive fast and make the girls laugh,” she said. “But nobody ever doubted his heart. When called, he came to serve his country, where he made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Her heart, and the hearts of all Griffin’s friends went out to the Griffin family. “Few have experienced the anguish his parents and young wife experienced when that helicopter was shot down, or the even greater anguish of not knowing.”
But with Griffin’s homecoming that anguish has been banished. “But now they have closure,” she said. “Welcome home, gone but never forgotten.”
Father Bill Debo, a childhood friend, now a pastor, regaled with tales of being a childhood friend of Griffin’s and delivered the event’s ceremonial message.
“As a young man Rodney gave up the right to be with his home, family and friends so that others could enjoy that right. He gave up the warmth of home and familiarity, he gave up the right to come and go as he pleased, so that others could enjoy that right. Our Lord tells us, and I repeat, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s love for a friend.”
To the Griffin family, he said. “We owe you a debt for your sacrifice. You’ve given us a husband, a son, a brother, a grandson an uncle . . . You’ve given him to a grateful nation. That nation owes you and Rodney a great debt of gratitude.” He said everybody there should learn from Griffin’s example and the example of veterans everywhere for their proud service to the country.
That day, Debo said, was a sad day, but also a day of joy.
“Today is a sad day. But it is also a day of rejoicing, yours’ the towns, the country have all come together to rejoice in his homecoming.”
After a ceremony led by VFW Post 6276 Chaplain Ron Azdell commemorating the area’s fallen Vietnam War veterans. He talked about the ceremonies they have ever year commemorating the area’s fallen war dead. “But there was something that always seemed out of kilter. The thing that was missing was, all those other people, we knew where they were. They were dead and buried and in the ground, except for Rodney. And so there may be some peace here, today.”
He then, with the help of representatives of every service, held the service given at the Missouri Veterans’ Home whenever on of the residents dies. When it was over, those representatives, and all other veterans in the gym, saluted Griffin’s casket.
Next was another childhood friend of Griffin’s, Gary Prenger, who knew him through middle and high school.
“He’s not gone for me,” Prenger said after his sobs had slowed. “When I talk about Rodney it as if he is still with me. He was always up for fun, a prankster, and charismatic. You just had to understand the impact he had. As a sophomore he was voted the wittiest in the school . . . He was up for any challenge and he always had your back . . . Those memories make me smile. He had the special, special, special personality”
He called Griffin “The All-American Boy, right here in Centralia U.S.A.”
Prenger called the ride from St. Louis’ Lambert Airport to Arnold Funeral Home in Mexico as they accompanied Griffin’s remains back to Mid-Missouri, “110 miles of love, tears, sadness and joy.” He thanked the various Patriot Guard riders and others who turned the voyage into “a three-mile long motorcade down I-70 . . . Thank you Rodney for the ride. Thank you for giving it all and getting home. You had one more ride to share. You gave it all for all of us.”
Robert Petty gave he last of the eulogies. Another childhood friend, and a career military man, he spoke of Griffin’s early childhood in Mexico. “He was just as popular and well-known in Mexico as he was here,” Petty said of Griffin who, he said attended school in Mexico through his fourth-grade year.
“When Rodney moved from Mexico to Centralia, he did not give up his passport, he had dual citizenship, Centralia and Mexico . . . We had joint custody of Rodney, we had him on weekends, holidays and summertime. The rest of the time he was in Centralia . . . The great thing about Rodney was, if there wasn’t anything going on in Mexico, we came to Centralia and he knew where something was going on here.” He thanked Griffin’s wife, Donna, and his brother Daryl, for letting him and others be a part of the day.
“He was a hell-raiser and a heart-breaker,” Petty said as he shared what he described as a few clichés about Griffin. “He was a leader of men and a follower of women.”
“He was also one of the toughest little guys I met in my life,” Petty continued, “he was also a daredevil, there was nothing he wouldn’t try, nothing he wouldn’t do.”  That included jumping on freight trains and jumping off them near his grandmother’s house to visit his friends in Mexico,” Petty said.
Petty also served in Vietnam the same time as Griffin and said he got to spend a few hours with Griffin before Griffin went out on his final mission.
“Rodney was well recognized by his unit . . . He was the captain’s right-hand man,” Petty, who said that as a career army medical corpsman he had assisted in the care of presidents and senators, but none of that compared with the honor of being part of Griffin’s memorial that day.”
Not all the memories and compliments came from the podium. Childhood Centralia friends Barbara and Bob Melson were there to pay their respects as well.
“It’s just a relief that they’ve finally brought him home,” Barbara said after sharing a hug with Griffin’s widow, Donna Baker “The unknown has been very difficult, for his family, for this entire community, this is going to be closure. He’s a hero in everybody’s eyes. This is a very great day for everybody.”
After the ceremony closed, Griffin’s remains were placed back on the hearse, saluted by honor guard, patriot riders, family and civilians alike. The caravan left CHS and exited Centralia on Allen Street, passing beneath a giant American flag suspended from a Centralia Power Department truck.
Patriot Guard, family, friends, Highway Patrol and Centralia Police all headed east again, back down 22 toward East Lawn Cemetery. The flags were still waving; dry this time, lit by the sun of a new day, one where Centralia’s hero had finally come home.

More than 2,000 lonely flags fluttered in the rainy wind Saturday morning along Highway 22 between Thompson and Centralia.
Although the clouds held off the sunrise, the flags were lit by the headlights of hundreds of Patriot Guard motorcycle riders as they headed east to Mexico, on their way to escort Sgt. Rodney Griffin back home to Centralia.
Mike Engert formerly of Centralia, made the drive from Purcell, Oklahoma, and was waiting outside Centralia High School, chatting with local veteran David Luke and handing out red, white and blue star spangled lapel crosses.
He was sharing a childhood memory of Griffin, with whom Engert said he played war with around the railroad tracks at the intersection of Rodney Griffin Drive and Singleton, a spot now adorned with a memorial to Griffin.
“We hid under the bridge when the train came. . . Now after 45 years, he and his family will have peace, the peace that God grants us . . . Rodney’s’ family was notified on February 9, his brother’s birthday, that was no coincidence, it was God’s grace.”
Inside more than 800 people filled the chairs set up one tarp-covered gym floor, the bleachers and the reserve bleachers behind them.
They listened with rapt attention as speakers Larry Hatfield, Sherry Medley, Bill Debo, Gary Prenger, and Robert Petty shared thoughts and memories regarding the man many call Centralia’s greatest hero. Many of those listening had waited hours in the sputtering rain for the motorcade carrying Griffin’s remains to make the 14-mile trip from Mexico to CHS, escorted by the Patriot Guard motorcyclists, the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Centralia Police Department.
Ball, a captain with the United States Army Honor Guard was the memorial’s first speaker. He said Griffin’s memory and heroism were his inspiration. Trying to hold back tears he told the audience how Griffin’s memory kept him going during the toughest times of his service. “Sgt. Rodney Griffin, the days when I was ready give up, his memory the inspiration that kept me going: ‘Sgt. Rodney Griffin, always remember.’”
He and Griffin shared a bond across the years. “We came from the same small town and shared the same uniform,” Ball said. “He paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country and never came home. Well Rodney, you are home, Home after 45 years, you have received the hero’s welcome you so richly deserve.”
The next speaker was CHS classmate and fellow soldier, Sgt. Larry Hatfield, U.S. Air Force, retired. He shared some fond memories: “Rodney was full of life and loved everyone,” Hatfield said. “He was also meaner than a snake and loved to dance.”
Looking over the packed gym he said: “I remember Centralia being a very safe town, a very friendly town, a very caring town. I think this crowd shows these traits have stood the test of time.”
Hatfield shared memories about how on weekends they would go to the local pizza parlor and empty their pockets to buy a pizza. “Even if we didn’t have enough, we would go anyway. Rodney was always confident he could find a friend to go in on us for a pizza, and with that smile, that charm, nine of 10 times he found someone.”
He also talked about the summer they were able to sneak into the local drive-in though the back fence and the owner’s turning a blind eye to their high jinks. “The owner’s generosity was another example of Centralia’s generosity.”
He also shared his last memories, visiting Griffin and his wife Donna at their home in Tidball’s Trailer Court. “I was home on a weekend pass and learned that Rodney was home visiting and had just received orders for his new assignment, one in Southeast Asia. “We talked about married life, life in the army, life in the air force, and his upcoming deployment.”
They also talked, Hatfield said, about what he called “Rodney’s inability to say goodbye. I asked Rodney to be careful, to be safe and to come home. Rodney put on that million $ smile and said ‘I’ll see you in 12 months.’ But today after many, many prayers and long years, he is home.”
CHS classmate Sherry Sewell said Griffin would always remain young in their hearts and memories while the rest of them turned grey.
“He liked to drive fast and make the girls laugh,” she said. “But nobody ever doubted his heart. When called, he came to serve his country, where he made the ultimate sacrifice.”
Her heart, and the hearts of all Griffin’s friends went out to the Griffin family. “Few have experienced the anguish his parents and young wife experienced when that helicopter was shot down, or the even greater anguish of not knowing.”
But, with Griffin’s homecoming that anguish has been banished. “But, now they have closure,” she said. “Welcome home, gone but never forgotten.”
Father Bill Debo, a childhood friend, now a pastor, regaled with tales of being a childhood friend of Griffin’s and delivered the event’s ceremonial message.
“As a young man Rodney gave up the right to be with his home, family, and friends so that others could enjoy that right. He gave up the warmth of home and familiarity, he gave up the right to come and go as he pleased, so that others could enjoy that right. Our Lord tells us, and I repeat, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s love for a friend.”
To the Griffin family, he said. “We owe you a debt for your sacrifice. You’ve given us a husband, a son, a brother, a grandson an uncle . . . You’ve given him to a grateful nation. That nation owes you and Rodney a great debt of gratitude.” He said everybody there should learn from Griffin’s example and the example of veterans everywhere for their proud service to the country.
That day, Debo said, was a sad day, but also a day of joy.
“Today is a sad day. But it is also a day of rejoicing, yours, the towns, and the country have all come together to rejoice in his homecoming.”
After a ceremony led by VFW Post No. 6276, Chaplain Ron Azdell commemorated the area’s fallen Vietnam War veterans. He talked about the ceremonies they have ever year commemorating the area’s fallen war dead. “But there was something that always seemed out of kilter. The thing that was missing was, all those other people, we knew where they were. They were dead and buried and in the ground, except for Rodney. And so there may be some peace here, today.”
He then, with the help of representatives of every service, held the service given at the Missouri Veterans’ Home whenever on of the residents dies. When it was over, those representatives, and all other veterans in the gym, saluted Griffin’s casket.
Next was another childhood friend of Griffin’s, Gary Prenger, who knew him through middle and high school.
“He’s not gone for me,” Prenger said after his sobs had slowed. “When I talk about Rodney it as if he is still with me. He was always up for fun, a prankster, and charismatic. You just had to understand the impact he had. As a sophomore he was voted the wittiest in the school . . . He was up for any challenge and he always had your back . . . Those memories make me smile. He had the special, special, special personality”
He called Griffin “The All-American Boy, right here in Centralia, U.S.A.”
Prenger called the ride from St. Louis’ Lambert Airport to Arnold Funeral Home in Mexico as they accompanied Griffin’s remains back to Mid-Missouri, “110 miles of love, tears, sadness, and joy.” He thanked the various Patriot Guard riders and others who turned the voyage into “a three-mile long motorcade down I-70 . . . Thank you Rodney for the ride. Thank you for giving it all and getting home. You had one more ride to share. You gave it all for all of us.”
Robert Petty gave the last of the eulogies. Another childhood friend, and a career military man, he spoke of Griffin’s early childhood in Mexico. “He was just as popular and well-known in Mexico as he was here,” Petty said of Griffin who, he said attended school in Mexico through his fourth-grade year.
“When Rodney moved from Mexico to Centralia, he did not give up his passport, he had dual citizenship, Centralia and Mexico . . . We had joint custody of Rodney, we had him on weekends, holidays and summertime. The rest of the time he was in Centralia . . . The great thing about Rodney was, if there wasn’t anything going on in Mexico, we came to Centralia and he knew where something was going on here.” He thanked Griffin’s wife, Donna, and his brother Daryl, for letting him and others be a part of the day.
“He was a hell-raiser and a heart-breaker,” Petty said as he shared what he described as a few clichés about Griffin. “He was a leader of men and a follower of women.”
“He was also one of the toughest little guys I met in my life,” Petty continued, “he was also a daredevil, there was nothing he wouldn’t try, nothing he wouldn’t do.” That included jumping on freight trains and jumping off them near his grandmother’s house to visit his friends in Mexico,” Petty said.
Petty also served in Vietnam the same time as Griffin and said he got to spend a few hours with Griffin before Griffin went out on his final mission.
“Rodney was well recognized by his unit . . . He was the captain’s right-hand man,” Petty, who said that as a career army medical corpsman he had assisted in the care of presidents and senators, but none of that compared with the honor of being part of Griffin’s memorial that day.”
Not all the memories and compliments came from the podium. Childhood Centralia friends Barbara and Bob Melson were there to pay their respects as well.
“It’s just a relief that they’ve finally brought him home,” Barbara said after sharing a hug with Griffin’s widow, Donna Baker “The unknown has been very difficult, for his family, for this entire community, this is going to be closure. He’s a hero in everybody’s eyes. This is a very great day for everybody.”
After the ceremony closed, Griffin’s remains were placed back on the hearse, saluted by honor guard, patriot riders, family, and civilians alike. The caravan left CHS and exited Centralia on Allen Street, passing beneath a giant American flag suspended from a Centralia Power Department truck.
Patriot Guard, family, friends, Highway Patrol, and Centralia Police all headed east again, back down 22 toward East Lawn Cemetery. The flags were still waving; dry this time, lit by the sun of a new day, one where Centralia’s hero had finally come home.
(Some information contributed by Ron Schott/The Vandalia Leader)