Off the Cuff: Allen’s life was short, but he continues to make a big impact

-A A +A
By Cheryl Duncan, Assistant Editor

I don't remember Allen. At all.

My memories of this stellar young man are those my parents shared with me. Their rollercoaster relationship, abruptly halted with my mother's death in April 2005, was fraught with disagreements. There were two things, however, on which they steadfastly agreed:

They loved my sister and me, and they loved Allen.

Allen was almost family in the small rural community in which he and my father were raised. He inched closer to that familial line a few months after I was born, when his big brother married my father’s baby sister.

Though I have no memories of him to call my own, I began to love Allen through my parents’ affection for him. My mind’s eye replays the scene almost as if it’s a recollection I can truly claim instead of one that’s germinated through years of telling and retelling.

He stopped by our house. I was 3, and Allen played with me while visiting with my parents. He told them it would be his last visit, both Mom and Dad have said in relaying that conversation over the years.

He was right.

U.S. Marine Pfc. Gasper Allen Voiles returned to that tiny rural community only weeks later not of his own volition, but in a flag-draped coffin. A mortarman with less than a year of service, he was gunned down at Quang Tri, South Vietnam, on Aug. 25, 1967.

He was only 19 years old.

My personal memories of Allen started with visits to his grave on a hillside in the community where his life began. Reverence set the mood for those visits that left my parents and other family members teary-eyed.

We kids loved to roam through cemeteries, shouting out surnames of those we thought could be related to classmates or exclaiming with the discovery of a tombstone indicating the grave had been there for 100 years or more.

We didn't do that at Allen's resting place. We stood silent with respect, gazing on the tombstone’s picture of a handsome, blue-eyed young man giving the camera a no-nonsense stare in his dress uniform. We traced our small fingers over the bronze marker that showed his service and sacrifice to his country.

I used those same fingers, now bigger and a bit more awkward, about 10 years ago to make a rubbing of Allen’s name when a replica of Washington’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial visited Crossville. (Panel 25E, Line 044, in case you're interested.) I carried it around for a while before eventually giving it to my dad. He held it with a shaky hand. The tears then began rolling down his cheek, as they always do.

As I’ve grown older, I find myself each Veterans Day weeping for the man I don't remember. It actually happened twice this year: the second round of tears flowed when I realized Allen was only a few months older than my own daughter – my baby, over whom I recently fretted about leaving at a university two and a half hours away.

How must Allen’s mother — my cousins’ grandmother — have felt knowing her baby was leaving her to go halfway around the world to go into battle? A war that, according to U.S. Navy statistics, left 58,209 Americans dead, 153,303 wounded and 1,845 missing.

I've often wondered what kind of man Allen would have been. If his siblings’ paths are any indication, he would have been kind and loving, a devout Christian with a ready smile, a quirky sense of humor and an eagerness to help his fellow man.

Shedding that second round of tears this year made me realize, however, that he may have fulfilled his destiny. My cousin — a niece born almost three years after Allen’s life ended — and I have discussed him on Facebook this week, typing each letter and syllable with love.

She, her siblings and cousins share that respect and love for him, and I'm sure each remembered him on Veterans Day in his or her own way as they tell their own children about the ultimate sacrifice their great-uncle made in a faraway land on a balmy August day.

Allen leaves us with a legacy of bravery, patriotism and love that transcends the generations. It’s a feat many who have lived decades longer failed to accomplish.

Good night, Allen. Thank you, and may God bless you.

• • •

Cheryl Duncan is assistant editor of the Roane County News. She expresses her gratitude to all veterans for their courage and sacrifice to ensure our freedoms.