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Rep. Carter vows to take renaming VA clinic for Vietnam KIAs to Congress
William Edward Sapp’s sister Kathy Lyons shows his service photo.
William Edward Sapp’s sister Kathy Lyons shows his service photo. Photo by Pat Donahue.

MIDWAY — For Dr. Joan Gibson Evans, Tuesday morning’s event was bittersweet, for its location and its purpose.

Evans and other gathered at Captain Joe’s in Midway, presenting U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Pooler) with proclamations and support for renaming Hinesville’s VA clinic in honor of four Liberty County residents killed in action in the Vietnam War.

One of those was Evans’ brother, Marine PFC John Gibson. The restaurant that once occupied where Captain Joe’s now sits is where Gibson took his siblings to eat before he shipped out.

“And I remember that day vividly,” she said. “As I stand her, the emotions are welling up. For 54 years, all those years, I’ve been hoping and praying, every birthday, every holiday, every Veterans Day. I will never, ever, let his memory die. I pray they will rename that building.”

If local Vietnam veterans can get their measure approved, his name, the names of three other Liberty Countians killed in action in Vietnam, will adorn the name of the VA outpatient facility to make it the Gibson James Sapp Smiley Outpatient Clinic, honoring Gibson, Dan Ninkey James, William Edward Sapp and Frankie Lee Smiley.

Al Williams served in Vietnam, and he knew Gibson, James and Smiley. But the longtime state lawmaker admits he long has been hesitant to talk about his in southeast Asia and the combat he saw.

Where he was in action during the Tet offensive, American and Vietnam forces lost control of the city twice before regaining it from North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces.

“It was 25 years I was out of Vietnam before I could even talk about it,” he said. “It’s not something that comes easy.”

His experience shook him so much that even though he grew up hunting and fishing, he gave away every weapon he owned.

“I didn’t own another weapon until two years ago,” Williams said. “I had seen enough death to last me a lifetime.”

Williams recalled carrying the personal effects of a fellow soldier, who had been killed in action, to his mother in Dallas. His friend had been killed on a mission Williams was supposed to be on.

“I told her, ‘he was a hero. He died a hero,’” he said.

Gibson, a Marine, was 22 years old when he was killed. He was in Vietnam for 100 days, from his arrival to his death in February 1968. Dan James, an Army infantryman, also spent 100 days in theater. He was 20 when he died on December 29, 1968. Sapp was a 25-yearold Army infantryman when he was killed on June 7, 1968, and Frankie Lee Smiley was 24 when he was killed in August 1968.

Gibson and James were from Riceboro, and Sapp, born in Ludowici, grew up in Liberty County. Smiley grew up just south of Midway.

James had a young daughter when he left for Vietnam. He was one of 16 children, and his baby sister was Peggy.

“We were close, very close,” she said. “When Dan got killed, I can still remember the day, when the chaplain knocked on our door at 8 o’clock that morning. At first, he said Dan was missing. He said he would keep in touch and keep us informed.

“Four o’clock that afternoon, the chaplain came back. He got out of the car. He was so emotional all he did was raise his hand and shook his head. Even though it was 54 years ago, sometimes, it seems like it just happened.”

James’ sister asked that whatever needs to be done take place to name the clinic in the four soldiers’ honor. Riceboro Mayor Chris

Stacy spent 20 years in the Army and served in Operation Desert Storm. While combat in southwest Asia was different from that Gibson, James, Sapp and Smiley saw in southeast Asia, the goals of soldiers were the same, Stacy said.

“Every day, you never know what is going to happen,” he said. “The deal is to try to make it back home and take care of your brothers, on your right and your left.”

Hinesville Mayor Allen Brown went to school with Sapp, pointing out Sapp lived within eyesight of what was then Bradwell Institute. Sapp and his sister, Kathy Lyons, were two of seven children.

“This was the best of them,” Lyons said as she held up a picture of her late brother. “Billy was the best of us.”

Her husband, David Lyons, served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

“I never saw a round go off. I was lucky,” he said. “Billy was a certified hero.”

Lyons married into the family after Sapp’s death but he has researched his late brother-in-law’s service, speaking to those who served alongside him on the day he was killed. Sapp was in the 4th Infantry Division in Kontum Province and they were assigned on a reconnaissance mission “down a trail they had been down 100 times,” Lyons said.

Each mission down that trail was met with an ambush, Lyons said, and Sapp served as the point man, the soldier who either located the enemy or drew fire to get the enemy’s position. They ran into another ambush and Sapp was hit first.

“To a person, every one of them said Billy Sapp was a hero,” Lyons said. “Billy Sapp deserves this recognition. This is the type of recognition these four heroes need.”

Since the Hinesville VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic falls under the umbrella of the Ralph Johnson VA Hospital in Charleston, S.C., it technically bears the name Ralph Johnson Outpatient Clinic. The Hinesville, Midway and Riceboro city councils have signed proclamations supporting the clinic’s renaming.

Of the 800 community- based outpatient clinics throughout the U.S., only 10% are named to memorialize fallen veterans, Bruce McCartney said.

Carter said support for renaming the clinic may take some political log-rolling, but he hopes to get it started when the lame duck session begins November 14, after the mid-term elections. Each member of Georgia’s Congressional delegation has to agree to the name change before it goes to the respective House and Senate committees.

McCartney pointed out that 25 such bills were presented to the 116th Congress but only eight were approved.

“I am going to do absolutely everything I can to make sure this happens,” Carter said.

Carter added that if a renaming for multiple people has not happened before “we’re going to do it.”

“After hearing all these testimonies, how can we not do it?” he said. “It if hasn’t happened, we’re going to blaze the trail. We want to get this done.”

Williams harkened to an old African proverb that states if you call their names, they are always around.

“We need to call their names,” he said. “They are bona fide heroes.”

Dan Ninkey James’ sister Peggy
Dan Ninkey James’ sister Peggy talks about her brother, who was killed in action in Vietnam. Photo by Pat Donahue
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter pins Gold Stars.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter pins Gold Stars. Photo by Pat Donahue.
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