Veterans service in Vietnam documented
Army Cpl. Ronald Lovelace held his M16 rifle as he looked across the open field toward North Vietnam. Early morning mist rose from the scorched earth. Fires smoldered, and the haze sil- houetted barren trees against the bleak skyline of the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, which was declared a safe, neu- tral buffer stretching between North and South Vietnam.
Lovelace was the subject of a memorable photograph taken of this ominous scene.
His service in Vietnam from 1969- 1970 made an impact on his life, as it did on many others who served. He died in 2019, but his nephew, Buddy Kittrell, commissioned local artist John Warr to immortalize the moment captured in the photo of the 21-year-old Lovelace. The artist used the inspiration of the small, grainy photograph to create a beautiful tribute that will forever honor the memory of Lovelace.
Love and war
Wenda Gonce Lovelace first met Ron during their junior year at Stevenson High School. They got to know each other during the school play, and their first date was the end-of-year junior/senior banquet. “We dressed up and had a great time,” she says. After that night, they were a couple.
They both graduated from high school in 1966 and continued their education at Auburn University. But in 1968, two years after arriving in Auburn, Ron Love- lace volunteered for the U.S. Army. After basic training, he was sent to Vietnam in late 1969. Meanwhile, Wenda earned her bachelor’s degree in food and nutrition.
Wenda would write letters daily to Ron, but delivery was often delayed, and sometimes he would receive a dozen letters at a time. Meanwhile, she would rarely learn details about his status.
“At times, it would be weeks of not hearing from him, not knowing if he was dead or alive,” she says. “I prayed and prayed for his safety, and God answered those prayers. It was a really hard time.”
After not hearing anything from Love- lace for at least a month, Wenda happened to pick up a copy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. A photograph of her love loading up his plate for a Thanksgiving meal was on the front page.
“I just knew it was him,” she says. “They had flown turkey out to the field, and he got his turkey dinner!”
Lovelace was moved more than once while in service. At one time he was stationed near the border of Cambodia, then he was moved to South Vietnam at the DMZ.
“They weren’t supposed to be in it,” Wenda says. “They could see the North Vietnamese flag from their post. That’s where the photo of him was made.”
The Vietnamese DMZ was established in 1954 to divide North and South Vietnam. It was located at the 17th parallel.
In September 1970, Wenda got a call from Lovelace’s mother, Orene, letting her know he would be returning home. Unfortunately, it would not be the joyful reunion she had dreamed about. “It was definitely a bittersweet moment,” she says.
Lovelace was chosen to escort the body of Capt. Jimmy Ray Holkem, a Marine killed in action, back home to Stevenson. After his return stateside, Lovelace would not have to go back to Vietnam.
Despite the circumstances, Lovelace was still home safely, and Wenda’s prayers were answered.
“He got off the plane in Chattanooga, and he was just breathtaking,” she says. “He was so handsome.”
For his service, he was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge, Vietnam Campaign Medal, Army Commendation Medal with two Bronze Stars, National Defense Service Medal and Vietnam Service Medal.
The couple set a wedding date and married in March 1971 after five years of dating. After Lovelace earned his bachelor’s degree in textile chemistry from Auburn, the couple moved to LaGrange, Georgia.
Wenda worked as a dietician at George H. Lanier Memorial Hospital, and Lovelace got a job at Milliken. They welcomed their daughter, Krysta Lovelace West, in 1973. Lovelace left Mil- liken when he turned 40 years old and began his own business, Pine Mountain Concrete, a ready-mix concrete plant in Pine Mountain, Georgia.
After battling several health issues over the years, Lovelace was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2019. He was on dialysis and eventually had both legs amputated.
“It was a tough time, but we managed,” Wenda says. “I stayed with him every day and every night — whether it was rehab or whatever, we did it together.”
Lovelace died on Dec. 5, 2019.