12/22/17 — In honor and remembrance

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In honor and remembrance

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 22, 2017 5:50 AM


Kirk Keller introduces the McCowan family during a wreath laying ceremony at the grave of Pfc. Dan Bullock in Elmwood Cemetery Thursday. The family has been visiting Bullock's grave for the past five years. From left are Aubrey, 10, Hunter, 17, and Cassie, 12, as their mother, Candace, looks on.

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Candace McCowan lays a wreath on the grave of Pfc. Dan Bullock Thursday, something her family has been doing for the past five years.

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A wreath lies on the grave of Pfc. Dan Bullock. It was the first wreath laid at Elmwood Cemetery Thursday.

There are heroes among us, even if they are not always visible.

Master Sgt. Mark McCowan was active duty Army, a Green Beret in Special Forces that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein.

Based at Fort Bragg, during six combat deployments, including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, he was highly decorated with more than 40 military awards and decorations.

And yet for several years, without fanfare, he traveled to Goldsboro with his wife and children to demonstrate to them another example of heroism -- visiting the grave of Pfc. Dan Bullock in Elmwood Cemetery.

Kirk Keller discovered the family there last year while there to lay wreaths on the graves of several veterans.

"God had to make this happen," he says. "If I had been there an hour before or an hour after, I would have missed them. But they just happened to come up just as I laid this wreath."

Bullock, a U.S. Marine from Goldsboro, was reportedly the youngest serviceman killed during the Vietnam War. He enlisted at age 14, changing the date on his birth certificate to enter the service. He died a short while later, at age 15.

The story has become widely known in Wayne County.

Keller was unaware that others, like the McCowans, were also drawn in by the story.

"Mark either saw an article or came across it through social media and when he saw that (Bullock) was actually buried in Goldsboro and that he didn't have family, he said, 'Well, we're going to go on his birthday and pay our respects and that was it," said McCowan's wife, Candace. "We have had multiple friends who have been killed in action and every time Mark left (for deployment), there was that possibility that he could go through the same thing."

The family began making the annual trek in from Fayetteville five or six years ago, she said. And always on Dec. 21, Bullock's birthday. The father of four felt it important to educate his children about the price of freedom.

"It was amazing to find out every year he brought his family on Dan's birthday to visit Dan's grave, and it was the first time they had seen anybody there," Keller said of his chance encounter in 2016.

When Keller was later notified that the Tarheel Traveler, a segment featured on WRAL TV, was going to film a piece on Bullock's story, he suggested the McCowans be included. It ran on the air this past February.

"Two days after our interview, though, Mark passed away while visiting another wounded veteran in the hospital in Fayetteville," Keller said. "He suffered a heart attack."

He was only 45.

The loss did not prevent the family from making another trip and Thursday, Bullock's birthday, they showed up at Elmwood Cemetery.

This time, though, Keller asked Candace to lay a wreath on Bullock's grave.

She was accompanied by three of the couple's four children -- daughters Aubrey, 10, Cassie, 12, and Hunter, 17. Son Talus, 27, is now living in North Dakota, his father's home state.

"Every year we would relate to the girls that he (Bullock) was just a child and that was what he chose to do, fight for his country," Candace said. "We were extremely passionate."

This year's pilgrimage to Goldsboro was particularly emotional for the family, the first since Mark's passing.

There were also a couple of additions to the gravesite at the rear of Elmwood Cemetery, which runs parallel to U.S. 117 South.

Keller pointed out the presentation bench and a flagpole, as well as the headstone added years before to the unmarked grave, by former talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael after learning there had been none.

Bill Pate, chairman of the county commissioners, also presented the McCowan family with a plaque to commemorate the occasion and Mark's bravery and dedication to his country.

Candace admitted at the outset she was a bit nervous in anticipation of the potential turnout at the site. They were used to being there by themselves, she said.

But just as in years past, Candace said they plan to continue the tradition.

"There will never be a year that we live in North Carolina that we will not come," she said. "We'll always go as long as we're here."