My best friend, Donnie Tillar, was the one who convinced me to go to West Point. Donnie was a year older than I was. Thanks to his persuasiveness, I joined my childhood friend at West Point as part of the Corps of Cadets. We both served in Operation Desert Storm. Every year, as Memorial Day approaches, I think about him.
Because of his influence in my life, I want to share my Memorial Day tribute to Donnie.
A Memorial Day Tribute
Donnie’s Blackhawk helicopter was tragically shot down during the last hours of Operation Desert Storm. In February of 1991, Donnie passed away. Yet, it would not be until several weeks later that I received word, as we did not have the luxury email back then. My father, The General, was the one to let me know what had happened to Donnie.
I kept a journal while I served in Operation Desert Storm. Below is an entry from my journal which I wrote on March 14th, 1991—the day I found out about Donnie. I was a young, brash and broken 25-year-old 1st Lieutenant in the Field Artillery when I wrote it.
I shared this same journal entry at a memorial service I organized with some high school friends, back in May of 1991. I now share it every Memorial Day Weekend here.
Memorial Day is a day reserved for our men and women who have died in service to our country. It is a day to thank those men and women and their families who have sacrificed so much so you and I have the freedoms we enjoy.
In honor of Donnie and the other brave men and women of our country who died in the line of service, I want to share the following with you:
Day 151 In Country 14 March 1991
Today, I cried. I screamed. I shook and a part of me died. I got a letter from Dad telling me Donnie Tillar had been killed when his Blackhawk was shot down over Iraq. The details are sketchy as to when and what mission he was doing.
I’m just so shook up by the whole incident. Donnie and I go back to 7th grade. We were inseparable. He’s the closest I ever came to having a brother. Dad said he learned in Vietnam it was always the best ones who got hurt. Now, I know firsthand the true cost of war.
In a way, I idolized Donnie. He could accomplish anything he wanted to. He was the best athlete I ever knew. He could play any sport. He was smart. He made the Dean’s List constantly at West Point without really seeming to try. He could dance. Man, could he dance. The ladies loved him. I loved him. I still do.
When I heard the news, I couldn’t stop sobbing. I grabbed my Walkman and walked about 2 KMs. Then, for about an hour and a half, I just walked in circles. I yelled, I cried and I sang. I listened to the Rolling Stones Hot Rocks. Donnie loved The Stones. I sang at the top of my lungs, by myself in the middle of the Arabian Desert. I talked to Donnie as if he was there.
After a while, my mind turned to our adventures together. I began to smile. Then, I found myself laughing and crying at the same time—if that is possible.
I returned to my vehicle in a state of numbness. But, I began to tell everyone and anyone, Donnie and Dave stories. They just flowed out of me.
There was the time when Donnie and I got his parent's car stuck in the snow ON TOP OF THE SKI SLOPE. Then there was the time Donnie and I drove away on his motorcycle with a case of champagne after work at the Hotel Thayer. Donnie and me made trips to Stowe skiing and I thought of the hell we put his Dad through. And then, there was the story about how every time we’d go out together, Mrs. Tillar would roll her eyes when she found out he would be with me, while my mother did the same when she knew I’d be with him.
Now the beat goes on. I will tell people about my best friend, Donnie Tillar, for the rest of my life. My first son will be named after a true hero and a true friend—Donaldson Preston Tillar III.
I am going to have a party for him. In his honor, I want to gather his old friends and old loves together for a big blowout. He’d love to be there. But, he’ll be in a much better place. All we can do is raise our glasses and drink a couple for a man who touched all of us. A man with a penchant for fun. A man we will all miss. A man I will fondly remember as the brother I never had.
Today, I have a 24-year-old son named: James Donaldson Anderson. He and his twin sister were born 6 years to the day (March 14, 1997) after I originally wrote this journal entry.
In November 2012, Donnie’s younger sister Lani got married. I had the honor of officiating her wedding and being with her whole family. Donnie was there too. We all felt him.
Remember our fallen heroes and their families.
Not just on Memorial Day, but every day in your prayers.