It took 10 months, but Willie Clark is finally home.
He died in the Philippines on Oct. 19, 2018, after traveling there for medical treatment. His daughter, Deannese Clark of Gainesville, has been working since then to bring him home.
“One of the last things he said when he was able to somewhat speak was, ‘Take me home, don’t leave me alone.’ That was my mission,” Deannese Clark said. “… I’m the same way my dad is. Once I set something in my mind, I’m going to do it.”
Willie Clark served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and was deployed to Vietnam three times, receiving two Purple Hearts and other medals. He had developed numerous health problems, including bone cancer, and had traveled to the Philippines for surgery, Deannese Clark said.
He was in the Philippines for about a decade, and Deannese Clark said she tried to get him transferred from Cebu to another hospital in Manila, but was told he was too sick to be transported.
Soon after her father died, Deannese Clark learned that hospital bills had piled up, and she was expected to pay them before her father could be returned to the United States and a death certificate could be issued.
Due to the time difference, she was receiving calls late at night from the funeral home in the Philippines and the U.S. Embassy.
She was getting little sleep as she tried to figure out how to pay the bills and bring her father home.
Deannese Clark said her father was a strict but loving man who both expected the best from his family and wanted the best for them.
“He was a very determined person, to make something out of his life, to have something in his life,” she said. “… He said, when you start something, you always finish it. You never give up, regardless of how hard it is.”
She reached out to Susan Henthorn, Region 4 deputy director for Associates of Vietnam Veterans of America and another Gainesville resident. Henthorn said she knew she had to help.
“I saw a veteran that fought valiantly for our country … all alone, and he should be able to rest in his own country that he fought so hard for,” Henthorn said.
She knew who to call.
“I got mad that Friday morning and I called Washington D.C,” Henthorn said. “I had to go through a hundred switchboards, but I told my story and I was steadfast. I wanted to talk to one of Donald Trump’s aides.”
She eventually spoke with the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, which agreed to help handle the hospital bill and get Willie Clark home.
Through Vietnam Veterans of America, Henthorn had also worked to raise about $2,200 for Willie Clark’s cremation and flight to the United States.
His body finally arrived in th United States on Aug. 3. He was laid to rest Thursday at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.
Deannese Clark said she was overwhelmed by the support from people who never even knew her father but felt a connection to her family.
“I feel just very, very blessed, and very, very thankful. I don’t even know how to put that in words,” she said.
Jerry Ward of Memorial Park North Riverside Chapel was also contacted by Henthorn. Memorial Park will not be charging for the memorial service —“this family has had enough,” Ward said.
“It’s a relief that we are able to honor him since he’s a retired vet. … He defended our country and fought with valor and served his country with honor,” Ward said.
Ward arranged payment to the funeral home in the Philippines where Willie Clark had been since his death, enabling him to come home.
“It was amazing. Every time I had to raise money for a bill, everyone I asked, they didn’t even hesitate,” Henthorn said. “It was such a warm feeling, to think that there are people out here that care.”
And Henthorn said she was proud of Deannese Clark for her determination, and grateful to have played a part in honoring Willie Clark.
“It was a wonderful feeling to tell Deannese, ‘Daddy’s home,’” Henthorn said. “… She completed her mission. She accomplished what she set out to do.”