Gerald Cleverley’s dream of joining the military was days from being realized.
It was 1970, the Vietnam War was the subject of protests at universities nationwide. The protests at Wichita State University in his hometown incensed Cleverley, who at 17 would have enlisted, if only his parents would have signed the forms.
“They wanted to see if I would be drafted when I turned 18,” he says. “Ten days before my 18th birthday, I was in a terrible car accident.”
As Cleverley describes it, his car hydroplaned and he avoided five oncoming cars before his vehicle crashed. The accident was so bad, Cleverley said, that conversation on police radios spoke of him as DOA, dead on arrival.
But he wasn’t.
“It was considered an act of God,” he said.
Cleverley survived, but his dreams didn’t. They were crushed, along with his right arm. He was told he was not fit to serve — and never would be.
After years of rehabilitation, he was able to join the National Guard at age 31. It wasn’t the type of service he dreamed of, but that didn’t matter.
“I believe in God. He said ‘Go for it,’ and I did. And I’m glad I did, OK?”
Cleverley now lives in Florence in a building that used to be a Baptist church. Health problems have him in a motorized wheelchair with an oxygen tank hooked up to his nose.
He is a member of the American Legion.
A few years back, Cleverley worked with American Legion members Jimmy Steele, Steve Hett, and Reilly Reid to construct a caisson as a memorial to those that served. A caisson is an ammunition chest usually hauled by wagon. In military funerals, caissons often are used to pull caskets.
Cleverley’s monument is such a caisson, with the casket on the back, draped by an American flag.
Sitting under a pavilion at Veterans Park in Florence for Memorial Day, the caisson is a harrowing reminder of military sacrifice. For that reason, he thinks the funeral caisson is the most appropriate symbol of military sacrifice.
“There’s a lot of good, true veterans in this community,” Cleverley said. “The caisson isn’t for me, it’s for them. They gave a lot more than I did for this country.”
Cleverley gave three years of a six-year stint in the National Guard. He says he resigned after three years to go active duty, only to discover he had one too many dependents to do so.
He doesn’t live with family anymore. He has two Jack Russell terriers, Rocky and Sir Gregory, both of whom are more than 10 years old. He says both are “just as temperamental as I am.”
Cleverley didn’t go out to any services on Memorial Day.
“In a wheelchair? Come on,” he said.
However, Hett took him Sunday to see the caisson. Cleverley said it made his day to see someone he didn’t know get out of a car and photograph it.
“This American heritage is filled with veterans that cared,” he said. “They didn’t die just for themselves; they died for you and me. They lived for you and me. I just wanted to show my appreciation.”
He knows the suffering that veterans and their families endure. His father and his uncle were both in the service, though he insists it was the Vietnam protests that spurred him to want to enlist.
“Veterans, their families, they all suffer,” he says. “They don’t need to be spit upon at airports, they don’t need to be ridiculed, and they sure as hell don’t need to be questioned as to their patriotism. We are a great country. We need to act like it.”