Eighth grade was the year we took a class trip to Washington, D.C., and I couldn’t have been more excited. I loved reading and history and reading about history back then, and touring our nation’s capital to learn more of the United States’ backstory was, I had decided, probably the coolest thing I would ever have the opportunity to do. In the weeks leading up to the trip, my history teacher asked us to write a letter to one of the North Carolinians etched in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; we would leave the letters at the base of the Memorial to honor their service and sacrifice.
If you’ve visited D.C. yourself, you may have seen the dozens and dozens of student letters scattered along the base of the wall from time to time. One of those letters, years ago, was mine, and while I don’t remember the contents of my letter, I do remember the young man I wrote to: PFC Robert Merrill Campbell of Charlotte, North Carolina. I chose to write to Robert for three reasons: first, because he lived in the city where I was born; second, because I recognized his middle name, Merrill, as a surname in my family tree; and third, because we share a birthday–August 8.
Robert Merrill Campbell was born on August 8, 1948 in Gastonia, North Carolina to George Russell Campbell and Marjorie Helen Mulkey. He had two older sisters, Georgia Dean Campbell (b. 1946) and Patricia Ann Campbell (b. 1944), as well as an older brother, Ronald Lamar Campbell (b. 1947), and the family made their home in Gastonia, a city about half an hour’s drive from Charlotte. Robert attended Wray Junior High School in his hometown, and he later took classes at Garinger High School and North Mecklenburg High School–a North Carolinian through-and-through.
On November 15, 1968, at the age of 20, Robert enlisted as a Private First Class in the United States Marine Corps. He soon became a rifleman, and he had the dangerous job of engaging in firefights with the enemy, shielded only by his own helmet and body armour. Two months after his enlistment, on January 27, 1969, Robert was hit by enemy fire in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam and died instantly; his records note that there were “multiple fragmentation wounds” and that he “died outright.” His funeral was held back home about a month later, and he is buried in Gaston Memorial Park; his name, as well, remains etched into the walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorials in D.C. and Charlotte.
Robert was awarded the Purple Heart, the National Defense Service Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal for “meritorious service over an extended time in search and clear operations.” I cannot begin to imagine the pain that the loss of Robert must have brought to his parents and siblings, and I will not try to reflect on that pain here–it’s not my story to tell. I can say, though, that this young man’s life resonated with my 13-year-old self. And although I am 22 years old, and have been on this Earth longer than Robert was allowed, he saw and knew more of the world than I probably ever will. It’s a school field trip–and a letter–that has changed my life, and I intend to make the most of the time I have–just as Robert must have years ago.