Sterling Legion receives gift of remembrance

Rock Falls’ Navy veteran who died in March makes sure fallen servicemen are not forgotten

Sterling American Legion Post Commander Nelson Vasquez speaks prior to the unveiling of a picture titled "Last Stop Before Home" at the Legion on Saturday. In the foreground is Freida McCombs, whose late husband, Robert, wanted the picture hung at the Legion to honor and remember those who didn't make it home from war.

STERLING – While serving in the Vietnam War, Robert McCombs was trying his best to get home on leave and to make it in as close to home as possible.

The closest he could get was Iowa, and that was on the condition he accompany the body of a fallen serviceman home to family. He agreed to do it.

What happened afterward affected McCombs for the rest of this life, ultimately leading to steps he took before his death to ensure those who don’t make it home from military service are not forgotten.

On Saturday, that wish – which he made years before his March 2023 death – came true.

During a ceremony that afternoon at the Sterling American Legion in front of servicemen, friends and family, Robert’s wife, Freida, shared her husband’s story and what he had planned for her to do after his death from metastatic bladder cancer.

Above her, on the Legion’s wall, was a picture with fabric draped over it, ready to be unveiled. “Some of you have seen at my home this picture. It’s been there for awhile.”

She then explained its connection to what happened when Bob delivered the fallen serviceman’s body to his family so many years ago.

“That impacted him because when they unloaded the coffin and went in front of the family, the mother was grieving so badly and she slapped Bob and said, ‘Why are you upright and my son is not’,” Freida recalled. “Bob carried that his whole life”.

A longtime member of the Sterling American Legion, Bob, of Rock Falls, did two tours in Vietnam and then a world tour before leaving the Navy in 1972. He was a mechanic for a time and later spent most of his working days as a cross-country semi driver, having driven for John Deere and Nestle.

Exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam eventually led to his cancer diagnosis. Bob was 74 when he died March 17; but at some point years earlier, he come across a picture titled “Last Stop Before Home” that spoke volumes to him.

“He found this picture, I am guessing online, he had it put in museum glass to keep it preserved,” she said of the picture, a black-and-white drawing of a train station with a colorized American flag-draped coffin alone on the station’s platform. “He said he wanted everyone, veteran or not, to never, ever forget that many guys aren’t blessed to come home upright.”

Freida, for quite possibly years, did not know about the picture’s existance.

“I worked at Wahl Clipper and before I retired in 2017, he already had it. I’m guessing he found it online somehow, and the first that I knew about it was when he had Grummert’s frame shop frame it, put it in museum glass and keep it for him,” she said. “I tried to get him last year to do this himself and he said, ‘Freida, I can’t. I can’t’.”

Bob twice made Freida promise – once in September 2022 and then again in February – that she would make sure the picture made its way to the Sterling Legion after his death because it would “speak to all the people at the Post,” she said.

Next to the picture are a plaque and a framed explanation about the drawing, which signifies the many service members who said goodbye to their families at bus stations, airport terminals and train depots as they left to serve. The coffin’s presence on the platform points to its last stop before returning home, and the loss of nearly 60,000 Americans fighting the Vietnam War.

“The ceremony was very special,” Sterling American Legion Post Commander Nelson Vasquez said, adding that people at the Post all week had been asking what was under the fabric. “[I told them] come Saturday. If you’re a veteran it will mean a lot and if you’re a civilian, non-military, it will mean more to that person. It represents what a veteran looks at. His memory is always there, good or bad. And for civilian people, it’s more like a warming touch from us to them, that we are not forgotten.”

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema

Charlene Bielema is the editor of Sauk Valley Media.