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Parents continue to honor veterans, Gold Star families after son's death

By AMANDA KING | The Augusta Chronicle (Tribune News Service) | Published: October 29, 2017

When Cpl. Matthew Dillon called to request fruitcake from his mom on Friday, Dec. 8, 2006, Lucy Dillon was confused by his request. Matthew didn't like fruitcake.

Nonetheless, Lucy stayed up all night in their home in Aiken making fruitcake and baking cookies. She mailed them the following morning to Al-Khalidiyah, Iraq, where her son was stationed.

That day, she and her husband, Neal Dillon, received another phone call from Matthew, a rare occurrence during deployments. He was excited about Christmas and told his parents about the gifts he had purchased for his nieces and nephews.

The following day, the Dillons received a third phone call from their son, this time requesting they help him find a gift for his brothers for the upcoming holiday. The phone call ended when a fellow Marine came in to tell Matthew it was time for them to head out on a mission.

On a Monday, Dec. 11, 2006, Lucy and Neal Dillon received word that their 25 year-old son and two other Marines were killed during that mission when their Humvee hit an improvised explosive device and caught fire after an exchange of small arms fire.

Matthew had a successful career in the South Carolina National Guard and the Marines. He enlisted in the National Guard after 9/11, wanting to respond to the tragedy. He was sent to Iraq in 2003, and the following year took shrapnel to his arm and hand. He had to wait until he returned home to have the pieces from his hand removed at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon.

Unfortunately, doctors were not able to get all the shrapnel out.

"He said there will always be a little Iraq in him," Neal Dillon said.

After his return, Matthew worked in a motorcycle shop for a while and went back to college but later decided to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, his father said.

"It has a habit for turning boys into men, and he matured," Dillon said.

While participating in an 18-mile run during his Advanced Infantry Training, Matthew broke his foot. He finished the remaining 9 miles of the run despite his injury.

From training, he went to military police school and EMT school. When he was sent to Iraq again in September 2006, Matthew taught his peers EMT protocol so they could help others and themselves.

The week of his death, he was supposed to be on leave after being named Marine of the Quarter. Instead of going to the beaches of Bahrain, Matthew stepped up to work after two Marines in his unit fell ill.

After his death, Lucy and Neal experienced good moments and bad ones. The bad included letters from Westboro Baptist Church, which frequently protests outside of soldiers' funerals. They sent the Dillons letters saying they hoped his body was eaten by maggots before it returned home.

Then there were letters with condolences from former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Command General of the Marine Corps, Matthew's commander and former President George W. Bush.

Matthew was supposed to report to Washington, D.C., to serve on the president's security team after his deployment to Iraq. Political commentator and author Lt. Col. Oliver North sent flowers and two letters and made several phone calls to the Dillons.

There was also an email from one of the Marines in his unit that helped solve the fruitcake-request mystery. According to the Marine, Matthew told him and other Marines a story about fruitcake. Being from the West Coast and the northern part of the U.S., none of them had heard of fruitcake, much less eaten it. Matthew wanted his mom to make it for them.

Nearly 11 years after his death, Matthew's parents strive to honor veterans in any way possible, knowing that's what their son would do if he had returned home.

"He and his brothers said (that) when they were old and gray they were going to go to the airport and greet the soldiers," Neal said.

The Dillons and the South Carolina Gold Star Mothers are planning to erect a monument to honor Gold Star families in January in Mount Pleasant. The monument stands 8 1/2  feet tall and 16 feet wide and is made up of four panels -- Homeland, Family Patriot and Sacrifice.

Neal Dillon wrote a letter describing what it is like to be a Gold Star parent. The conclusion from "Letter to a Sleeping Son" reads:

"We proudly wear our wrist bands with your name, fly American and Marine Corps flags in the front yard for you, we have your boots and medals in a display case in the den and your dress blues hang in a shadowbox in the living room. We are keeping fresh the good memories, and more often now, as we speak of you, it is with joy. The family and friends, who loved you and buried you, thank you forever. America has had no better than you. And you were ours.
"Goodbye, Matt, Goodbye."

(c) 2017 The Augusta Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
 

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