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Marine pays final respects to comrade; both in famous Vietnam photo

SPRING LAKE — On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the old soldiers gathered.

They stood around the grave of Jeremiah Purdie at Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery. Purdie's family members were with them, including his widow, Virginia Purdie, and daughter, Lisa Purdie Williams.

Dan King, 66, leaned on a cane at the graveside. It was his desire to pay tribute to his former comrade that led to the gathering.

King was asked if he would like to say a few words. He hesitated a bit before delivering a short tribute.

"I was 18, he was probably 36," King said in a quiet voice. "He was much older, much wiser."

King and Purdie, both Marines, were bound together by their service in Vietnam, and through a photograph that became one of the most famous images of that conflict.

Purdie died of heart failure in May 2005 at the age of 74, and was buried with full military honors.

Now, King had come to pay his respects and say goodbye one last time.

For many, the photograph, titled "Reaching Out," summed up the deepening conflict in Vietnam in 1966.

In a devastated landscape on Hill 484 south of the Demilitarized Zone, gunnery sergeant Purdie - his head bloody and bandaged - reaches out to a fellow wounded Marine.

The picture was taken Oct. 5, 1966, by famed Life magazine photojournalist Larry Burrows. Five years later, Burrows was killed when a helicopter he was a passenger in was shot down over Laos.

One of the soldiers in the background is King. In the photo, he reaches out a steadying arm to Purdie.

King, who lives in Old Town, Maine, said he remembers little about the day the picture was taken.

"Total chaos," is how he describes it.

The picture was reproduced many times in magazines and books. Occasionally, journalists would call Purdie for interviews when the picture was published.

For years, Purdie kept a framed, poster-size copy of the picture above a mantle in the family's home. Included under the glass is a piece of shrapnel that had been lodged behind Purdie's left ear.

Virginia Purdie still has the photo on display in her home. She said although the picture depicted a traumatic time in her husband's life, he appreciated the impact it had.

"He didn't mind, because it kind of gave an insight into what he and so many of his fellow Marines had gone through," she said.

King said he and Purdie parted ways soon after the 1966 battle. King was a private and Purdie was a sergeant, and the two ranks had little social interaction, King said.

But King would occasionally see his old sergeant at Marine reunions held at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and other locales, he said. He got to know him better than he had when he was in the service.

King referred to Purdie as a "hard-charger.

"He was all Marine," King said. "Hard-nosed."

Purdie eventually wrote a biographical book. "The Journey that Brought Me to Glory" is a slim volume that touches on Purdie's early days growing up poor in the segregated South, his military experiences and the religious faith that was so important to him.

Virginia Purdie said her husband retired from the Marines in 1968, after 20 years in the service. Among other honors, Purdie was awarded the Bronze Star.

He worked as a regional manager of a chain of shoe stores in California. Later, the family relocated to New Jersey, where Purdie owned a grocery store. Purdie retired a second time from a sales position with Raritan Periodical Sales in New Jersey in 1994.

That same year, the Purdies came to Fayetteville to be closer to their daughter, who was going to college in North Carolina.

"When we first came here, he said his ultimate goal was to sit on his porch and drink lemonade, but of course that quickly wore out," Virginia Purdie said.

Instead, Purdie became deeply involved with his church, Friendship Missionary Baptist, serving as a deacon.

"That was one of his joys, serving the congregation and doing all he could to help the pastor out," said Virginia Purdie, who describes her husband as outgoing and compassionate.

King said he last saw Purdie in 1998 at a Marine reunion in Washington. After hearing Purdie had died, he harbored a desire to visit his grave and pay his respects. He wasn't able to attend Purdie's funeral, and in fact didn't know his fellow Marine had died until about a year later.

That desire became a reality after King met Pete Bell, another former Marine who lives in St. Pauls.

"I said, 'Pete, how far are you from Fayetteville?' I said, 'I've got a bucket list and I'd like to go to a friend of mine's cemetery and leave some flowers and say some prayers.'"

King said he intended the ceremony to be small and private. It grew after Bell contacted Virginia Purdie and other former Marines, some of them members of the Lumbee Warriors Association.

In early May, King - who is on disability and retired from the U.S. Postal Service - traveled to Raleigh to visit family. Bell brought him to Spring Lake to finally pay his respects to Purdie.

On a warm Sunday, a crowd of about a dozen gathered at Purdie's grave.

A wreath containing the Marine Corps motto "Semper Fi" and featuring both the U.S. and Marine Corps flags was placed.

Furnie Lambert, head warrior with the Lumbee Warriors Association, read a poem titled "Reunion."

Williams, Purdie's daughter who works as a teacher, read from prepared notes, thanking King for serving with her father and Bell for organizing the tribute. Williams remembered her father as not only a soldier, but a religious man who often volunteered to speak to her classes about the importance of integrity and character.

"My father had infectious charisma paired with an outgoing personality to match the shining light within his heart," Williams said. "He could be in a room full of strangers and by the time he left, most of them could remember his name and his positive spirit."

Jeremiah Purdie's 15-year-old grandson Kyle Williams also spoke. He called his grandfather an inspiration and says he tries to be like him. Family members say he strongly resembles his grandfather.

And Virginia Purdie, standing arm in arm with King, thanked him for reaching out to her husband - much as he had done in that now famous photograph.

"They formed a bond," she said. "That bond will never be broken. Once a Marine, always a Marine."

Later, King said the ceremony was more than he expected.

"I thought it was just going to be quick, leave some flowers, say a few prayers," King said. "It was real emotional. I guess what affected me most of all was when I saw his grandson looked just like him. The spitting image."

mullenr@fayobserver.com

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