Soldier Son

Get a famous horse . . . gear your work toward

children . . . Nashville will resist the cowboy and

western music . . . do it with a passion . . . don't

overlook the impact of parades.

Roy  Rogers's advice on how to become a cowboy star, June 1994

The Rogers home in Chatsworth, California, once bustling with children's activity, was eerily quiet by the end of 1964. Sandy was away at a private academy; Dusty was a junior in high school and always on the go; Dodie was the last daughter at home and involved in a variety of scholastic and social functions. Roy and Dale decided the 13,000-acre Double R Ranch was too big for their shrinking family and set their sights on moving to a smaller place in Apple Valley. The two talked about retiring from the entertainment business and living out their days in the peaceful high-desert community. "I'd like to do what I want to do," Roy told Dale. "Not what other people want me to do."

What Roy really wanted to do was open a museum. From the beginning of his career, he had held on to everything he thought could be included in display cases. Watches, saddles, cowboy boots, comic books, and fan letters were just a few of the items Roy had kept over the years. Inspired by Will Rogers's museum, Dale and Roy decided the time was right for them to open a place of their own.

After relocating to the Mojave Desert, the couple purchased a bowling alley, renovated the interior, and began unloading crates and boxes filled with western memorabilia. Their days of leisure would be spent visiting the museum, playing with their grandkids, breeding horses, and riding the dusty trails around their home on motorcycles. They limited their time in the public spotlight to guest appearances on television shows and Billy Graham crusades. Still, their schedules slowed only slightly after announcing they would retire. After more than twenty years in the business, the King of the Cowboys and the Queen of the West continued to be in public demand. The famous duo rarely refused an invitation to perform.

The Rogers family settled nicely into the Victorville Valley area. Dodie, Dusty, and Sandy were making new friends at school, forming bands, dating, and attending church. Sandy met a girl named Sharyn and fell in love.

He confided in his brother his desire to marry her and join the army. Dusty wasn't surprised by his vocation choice—as long as he had known Sandy, he'd had a love of the army. But he was only seventeen and would need Roy and Dale's permission to enlist. Dusty reminded Sandy that he was still in high school and suggested he have a talk with their parents if he truly believed this was his calling.

Roy and Dale stared solemnly back at their son as he unfolded his plans for the future. Sandy had approached his parents once before on the subject. A year prior to this conversation, he had asked for their consent to enlist and fight in Vietnam. They'd refused because they wanted him to finish school. He was ready now with an answer to that argument. "I'm making good grades," he reasoned. "I want to serve my country. I want to prove myself a man. I promise to get my high school diploma in the service." Roy asked him about Sharyn, and, smiling proudly, Sandy told his father that she had promised to wait for him.

The determined teenager defended his position with sincere conviction. Seeing how determined he was to realize his dream, Roy and Dale relented and gave him their consent.

It had always been difficult for them to deny Sandy certain desires. He had come from such a tumultuous early childhood and dealt with his handicaps with the courage and strength of most grown men. As a result of the abuse at the hands of his natural parents, he had been left with poor coordination, astigmatism in one eye, and an oversized, malformed head. He was never physically as strong as most boys his age, but he enthusiastically fought to keep up, never feeling sorry for himself or discouraged. Roy and Dale admired him for his heart and tenacity.

Roy, Dale, and Sandy headed to the recruiting station, both parents doubting that Sandy could pass the physical examination part of the process. They believed they would be home later in the evening with their driven son by their side, prodding him to get ready for school. Military doctors ran Sandy through a battery of tests—all of which he made it through. At that point nothing stood in his way of being in the army.

In February 1965 Roy and Dale's youngest son headed off to basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. Dale would later admit to Roy that she had a premonition that Sandy would never be home again.

Sandy marched past the stands near the parade field at Fort Polk. Keeping in step with the other soldiers, he saluted the post commanding officers inspecting the recruits just out of basic. Behind his dignified expression was an overwhelming excitement. A look that seemed to shout, did it! Dale was filled with pride watching her son in his dress uniform standing at attention awaiting words of encouragement from the fort's general. The captain of Sandy's outfit stood next to Dale; leaning over to the pleased mother, he said, "In my eighteen years experience in the service, I've never seen a boy so anxious to become a soldier—never one who tried so hard." Tears filled Dale's eyes as she thanked the captain for his kind words. This was quite an accomplishment for a young man who had struggled to overcome abuse. At the close of the graduation ceremony, Sandy carried himself off the grounds like a decorated hero. To his mother, and those who knew of his trials, he was nothing less.

Sandy asked to be sent to Vietnam after basic but was instead transferred to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. By this time he had decided that a military career was his life's pursuit.

Throwing himself into his job as a soldier, he requested one of the most hazardous assignments in the army—working with the demolition squad. He was denied the duty because of his slow reflexes.

After a short leave and a visit with his family and fiancee in Victorville, he was transferred to Fort Knox, Kentucky. Prior to being stationed at that post, he had again put in for a tour of Vietnam, but was turned down for a second time. His slow reflexes were once more cited as the reason for the denial.

From Fort Knox Sandy was placed on a rotation headed for Germany. He would serve with the tank corps there. He was thrilled with the assignment. Dale flew to Tennessee to see her son off. Prior to his overseas trip, he confided in his mother that he'd celebrated his eighteenth birthday drinking with friends. Sandy's birth parents had been alcoholics, and although there had never been a need to suspect he might have a weakness for alcohol, Dale was now very worried.

She could see he was ashamed of his actions but reminded him that as a Christian he had a responsibility to act accordingly. She also reminded him of the responsibility he had for the girl he planned to marry.

Just before he boarded the military transport plane, he kissed his mother good-bye and promised her that he would stay away from alcohol. Sandy left for Germany, and Dale headed back to California.

Sandy wrote home frequently. His letters were filled with love and gratitude for his parents and their influence in his life. He wrote about the day-to-day experience of being in the tank corps. He worked hard and went from loading the vehicles to actually driving them, soon being promoted to private first class. He gave God credit for all his accomplishments and assured Roy and Dale he was more than happy with his life.

He kept in touch with his siblings still living at home as well. Dusty was in his last year in high school, and Dodie was in eighth grade. He encouraged them to "put their faith in the Lord because he's always around when you need him."

A giant harvest moon hangs over the great expanse of the plains. A rider in the far distance spurs his horse hard through brush and dried vegetation. The steed's hooves kick up loose dirt and gravel, making it next to impossible to distinguish the rider's features. As the horse draws close, he suddenly stumbles. After struggling to keep himself upright, the stallion falls hard onto the ground. The rider is thrown. He rolls a bit then stops, lying prone and motionless. The horse picks himself up and hurries off, but the rider doesn't move. The bright moon casts a long shadow over the dead body. A loud scream fills the night.

In late October 1965 Dale sat bolt upright in bed, screaming from her nightmare. Sweat stood on her forehead, and she couldn't stop herself from crying or shaking the feeling that this had been more than a dream. Dale was in Texas visiting with her mother. She had wanted to celebrate her birthday at home and enjoy some time in the town of Italy. The people there had always made her stay special—inviting her to sing in the church choir and to give her testimony to the congregation. For Dale the time was always relaxing and rejuvenating. It gave her a chance to think things through with her mother and talk about God's great blessings. The nightmare stayed with her, however, clouding the trip with a sense of foreboding. The dream was still uppermost in her mind when she returned to California. She relived it over and over again on the plane.

Dale stepped down off the aircraft at the Los Angeles airport and headed into the terminal. Cheryl and Marion were waiting for her. With one look at their faces, she could tell something was wrong.

Dale ran to meet her daughters. "What is it? Who is it?" she asked. Cheryl gently took her mother's hands in hers and stepped close to her. "It's Sandy, Mom," she said softly. "He's dead."

Dale's knees buckled and her body shook. Marion and Cheryl kept her from falling. "No!" she shouted. "Not Sandy! No!" She burst into tears, sobbing loudly. Roy and Dusty hurried to her. Tears stood in Roy's eyes. "He's in Germany, not Vietnam," Dale said to Roy. "How could another one of my babies be gone?" Dale buried her face in her hands and wept. Roy put his arms around his wife, and they cried together.

It took several minutes for Dale to calm down. Once she had, Dusty explained what had happened to Sandy. After twenty-six days of field maneuvers, Sandy and his company returned to their barracks exhausted and anxious for a break. The troops rested up and went out on the town on a Saturday night. Sandy was celebrating his PFC promotion at the enlisted men's club when some of the soldiers in his company talked him into drinking. In one evening he consumed half a bottle of champagne, two beers, four mixed drinks, and a sweet cordial. Sandy drank until he passed out. His friends got him on his feet, forced him to vomit, then put him to bed, where he collapsed unconscious.

In the middle of the night he threw up again; the next morning his companions found him dead. He had choked to death on his own vomit.

The Rogerses made yet another trip to Forest Lawn Memorial Park, this time to lay their son to rest. The military funeral was complete with a bugler playing "Taps" and a twenty-one-gun salute. The American flag draped over Sandy's coffin was neatly folded and handed to his grieving mother. His body was buried next to Robin and Debbie.

During this tragic time Dusty had received his draft notice and was scheduled to report for duty three days after Sandy's service. Roy appealed to the draft board for an extension. In so doing he found that the Sullivan Act, which prohibits the enlistment of the family's sole heir, reclassified his son to 4-A status. Dusty was exempt from serving.

Just as they had done after Robin and Debbie's death, the Rogerses began the arduous task of going on minus another child. Sandy's death, no more than a year after Debbie's, left the family in a deep state of mourning. It did not, however, destroy their faith in God. Dale shared with readers in her book Salute to Sandy, "God has not promised us an easy way, but peace in the center of a hard way."

Neither Roy or Dale ever fully understood why Sandy was taken from them but rejoiced in the fact that he, along with their other children, had accepted Christ into his heart. Because of that truth they did not doubt that Sandy, Robin, and Debbie were with the Lord in heaven. Royalties from Dale's best-selling book and tribute to her son went to the Campus Crusade for Christ.

In the summer of 1966, the USO invited Roy and Dale to entertain the troops in Vietnam. Knowing how badly Sandy had wanted to be stationed there, they agreed to the tour in memory of him.

The western stars shared the stage with singer-comedian Martha Raye, western ballad singer Wayne West, and a country band called the Travelons. The show was well attended by homesick troops desperately in need of a distraction from the conflict. In addition to performing on stage, the USO troupe visited military hospitals, shaking hands with the wounded soldiers and Vietnamese children who had been caught in the crossfire.

Roy and Dale returned home after a two-week tour of one of the most volatile places on earth with a great sense of pride in American youth. They were sincerely moved by the strong, unbending dedication the troops demonstrated. The Rogerses felt the spirit of Sandy among those patriotic men.

During their travels they met with a friend of Sandy's who conveyed his sympathies over their loss. Dale asked the young man if Sandy had tried to be a good soldier. Without hesitating the friend replied, "Ma'am, he was a good soldier."