Dillons learn to live with pain of loss

AIKEN --- For Lucy and Neal Dillon, there is no end to the grief. There's no healing, no belief it will be better some day. They have accepted it.


The Gold Star Families of South Carolina has been a good program for them. They meet every few months with other families that have lost a loved one in the war.

"It heals the heart, because you can share your pain with someone who knows exactly what you are going through," Lucy Dillon said. "It's hard when you have a new family join the group because you do know exactly what they are going through. They always ask the question, 'When will it get better?' You have got to tell them the truth: it never does.

"You just have to find a place for it, the grief. Every day you have to get up and do something to honor your child."

It has been nearly four years since their youngest son, Marine Cpl. Matthew V. Dillon, was killed in Iraq's Anbar province. He was 25.

It was about 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11, 2006, when the doorbell rang. Neal thought to himself that it must be the UPS man delivering the Marine Corps flag that Matthew sent. He opened the door and saw two Marines in dress uniform.

They got to the point in the standard speech they have to use -- "we regret to inform you" -- and his knees buckled.

"I kept telling them, 'No, I just talked with him,' " Lucy said.

"Once we knew he was dead it was like we were in a dream, no, not that," Neal said. "It was like it was unreal."

They wouldn't believe it even as the house filled with friends and neighbors, many of whom had children serving overseas. Neal delivered the bad news to their other two sons: Robert, an Army colonel, and Michael, a police officer in Riverdale, Calif.

"I had to call Michael three times," he said. "He kept hanging up on me." Michael kept yelling "no, no. no."

The calvary of friends and neighbors stayed with the Dillons through the night until Neal's niece made it from her home in North Carolina. She was the closest relative, and a favorite.

Someone was always with them as they waited for Matthew's body to be sent home. Robert and Michael insisted on meeting the plane carrying their brother's body at Dover Air Force Base. They accompanied him the rest of the way home Dec. 20, 2006.

Their parents were in no condition to deal with all the arrangements, so they took charge.

"They did it all," Neal said. "I was really impressed with their maturity. We were kind of like zombies."

They later learned that on the day Matthew was buried, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church -- which believes God is killing soldiers because gays can serve in the military if they don't reveal their sexual orientation -- intended to protest his funeral.

The group had crashed a funeral in Athens, Ga., the day before. A member of the Patriot Guard -- veteran bikers who provide security for families burying their fallen soldiers -- noticed three vans with Kansas license tags, Neal said. He copied the tag numbers and called someone in Aiken -- the Dillons don't know who -- suggesting a time they might be able to intercept the group.

Just after the vans crossed the Savannah River, they were pulled over by a law enforcement officer at the rest stop for a "safety check." It took three hours to complete, Neal said.

They still don't know which law enforcement agency is responsible. They are just grateful.

They are also not into the politics of the war.

"We don't concern ourselves with the question if the war was justified or no. He died just because -- because he loved his country enough to defend it," Neal said. "The point is, his country asked him to serve and he volunteered. He volunteered at a time when he knew he would be sent to Iraq. We're proud of our son and the duty he performed."

The days and months that followed the burial were hard. Neal had retired from SRS in 2005.

"I sent him back to work because he was so depressed," Lucy said. He taught at Southern Wesleyan University in North Augusta.

Lucy's friends in her Friends of Freedom's Defenders group took over picking up packages and letters being returned from Iraq.

Three or four months later, Lucy got a call from the post office. There was a box to pick up.

When the postal worker saw her and realized the box was the one they had sent to Matt for Christmas, the young woman burst into tears, Lucy said. The worker had been there when Neal mailed the box and knew it contained sweets.

The fruitcake Matt had requested for his buddies is still in the refrigerator. His footlocker is still in the garage, unopened. They can't bear the thought of going through it.

"There is no closure," Neal said.

They focus on the good times with Matt and work hard to keep his memory, spirit of generosity and kindness alive. Every Dec. 11 is a celebration of his life.

Neal Dillon has gone back to work part-time. Both he and his wife stay busy with veterans and soldiers groups and events.

Lucy Dillon is still active with Friends of Freedom's Defenders,  a group she helped create with the help of 11 others, founded by when Matthew went to Iraq the first time with the South Carolina National Guard.

They both belong to the Aiken County Veterans Council, where Neal is the vice commander. Then there's the Military Order of the Purple Heart and the Marine Corps League, and of course the Gold Star Families.

There are packages to prepare and send to troops oversees. There's fundraising for the scholarships in Matthew's name and for the Fisher House, and Lucy plays host to the luncheon for the Wounded Warriors every year. The Aiken County Veterans Council is working with Habitat for Humanity to build a house for a veteran.

At their tidy Aiken home, a flag pole bearing the U.S. and Marine flags stands in the center of the front yard. In the driveway is Neal's truck with the license plate bearing "57th." Matthew Dillon was the 57th soldier from South Carolina to die in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

In the hallway are pictures of the sons in their military uniforms. The largest is Matthew's.

A curio cabinet houses items of Matthew's -- the Purple Hearts, his letters and his boots. In a shadow box over the couch in the family room is a set of his dress blues.

The Dillons are comfortable talking about Matthew, the happy times and the saddest of all. They try to console others when they tell their story.

One thing, however, is different about their house since that December nearly four years ago. They have changed the front door to one with a glass insert. No more surprises when the doorbell rings.

"I hate doorbells," Lucy said.


Because of a reporter's error, an Aug. 31 article in The Augusta Chronicle about Matthew Dillon's family contained incorrect information. The article should have said that Lucy Dillon was one of a dozen people who formed the Friends of Freedom's Defenders.

Also, the correct name of the Marine Corps Military Police School scholarship is the Matthew V. Dillon Leadership Award.

Also, Neal Dillon enjoyed his teaching stint at Southern Wesleyan University in North Augusta.

Also, because of a photographer's error, a photo caption with the article was incorrect. The caption should have stated that the Military Appreciation night at the Augusta GreenJackets game this spring was sponsored by several organizations, including the Aiken County Veteran Council, of which Lucy and Neal Dillon are members.

Dillon was proud to be Marine

Remembering Matthew

Matthew Dillon's brothers created a Web page in his memory: matthewdillon.memory-of.com