Remembering Donnie Bartlett, local man who paid ultimate price in Vietnam
By Morgan Bryce
July 4 is a time to celebrate America and those who have helped sustain this country for 240 years. Presidents, preachers, activists and regular people have taken stands during times of turmoil and controversy in an effort to protect the rights, freedoms and pursuit of the American dream guaranteed to Americans in the Constitution.
Commonly forgotten or under-appreciated for their efforts and sacrifices is the American soldier, regardless of branch. One such man was Opelika resident Donnie Bartlett, who served his country in the Vietnam War.
The son of the late well-known Opelikans Homer and Dot Bartlett, Donnie was born in Valley but moved to Opelika, where he spent his childhood and teenage years.
After graduating from Opelika, Donnie started attending Southern Union and stayed close with his former friends and classmates across the street at Opelika.
Davis also attended Opelika schools, but being several grades behind Bartlett, she had never previously met him.
“Donnie and I met one night after an Opelika basketball game. Me and my date came out of the gym into the parking lot, and it just so happened that Donnie and one of his friends were out there cruising in the parking lot, and pulled up to see us because they knew the boy I was with.”
Davis recalled that she and her date were standing on the curb talking, and when she happened to lean down and see Bartlett for the first time, she felt an instant connection.
“I bent down to look into the car and see the boys we were talking to, and when I saw Donnie, I thought to myself, ‘Wow! What a good looking guy!’, ’’ Davis said.
After dating for three months, Bartlett proposed to Davis in May 1969, and they married on August 16.
During this time, Bartlett was drafted, and began his training for the U.S. Army at Fort Benning in Georgia.
“After finishing basic, Donnie had to request a two-week leave from his commander for the wedding, and at first, the commander wasn’t willing to help us out. But after me and my momma went to talk to him, he changed his mind and approved Donnie’s request for the leave.”
After the wedding and honeymoon, Bartlett returned to his military duty. At one point, he was transferred to Fort Polk in Louisiana, where he went through flight training school.
Davis, because of her husband’s involvement in the military, lived with her parents. She was only 16, and Bartlett, 20.
“I think that the military lifestyle is hard on anyone, but especially for us because we were so young. It was hard to be apart so much, but we wrote often which made the separations easier,” Davis said.
After finishing flight training school, Bartlett returned to Fort Benning briefly, before being deployed to Vietnam in December 1969. Upon his arrival, Bartlett was stationed in Vinh Long, Vietnam and served as a private first class.
“It was a scary time for us, and I prayed to God that he would keep Donnie safe,” Davis said.
Despite being thousands of miles away, Bartlett managed to send letters once a week to Davis and each of her family members.
Louise Carroll, Bartlett’s mother-in-law, recalled how it felt to open one of Bartlett’s letters.
“The letters were so personal, and he wrote really well – they were like a face-to-face conversation,” Carroll said.
“My letters from him were loving and encouraging, and he never failed to remind me how much he loved me,” Davis said. “He always ended the notes with a poem, and they were something I treasured.”
From the time he had arrived in Vietnam, Bartlett had faced dangerous situations, and the volunteer mission given to him the morning of March 11, 1970, was no different.
“He was a gunner for one of the vehicles, and they were going through this stretch of road where just the day before, a battle had gone on,” Davis said. “They hadn’t had a chance to properly check the area for remaining explosives the night before, so they knew there was a risk traveling down that road.”
During the drive, the driver of the Jeep Bartlett was riding was fatigued, and Bartlett offered to take the wheel.
Moments later, Bartlett drove over a land mine, instantly killing him and the other three passengers in the Jeep.
Davis was at a friend’s house when she received the news about Bartlett’s death.
Already three months pregnant with their son Donnie Jr., Davis fell into a state of depression and was bed-ridden for a couple of months after Bartlett’s death.
Three months later, Davis’ great grandmother passed away, who was a significant part of her life. At her grandmother’s funeral, labor pains started, and later that day, she gave birth to Donnie Jr., who was born six weeks premature.
“Losing Donnie was hard, really hard. But my faith, parents and child helped me get through those times,” Davis said. “I knew I needed to find a way to move on and I did, but all these years later, it’s still so hard to think about.”
In the following months, Davis received Bartlett’s posthumous awards: the Army Commendation Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Combat Infantry Badge and most notably, a Purple Heart. These were only small remembrances of Bartlett’s sacrifices and selflessness in his military service.
Davis would later remarry and have another child named Leslie.
Now, 46 years later, Bartlett is still impacting the lives of everyone he knew, and even the lives of those who did not know him.
“Donnie was more like a son than a son-in-law to me,” Carroll said. “He was a good boy who loved life, and those people who were in it. I was blessed to have known him.”
Bartlett’s grandson, Donnie Stephens Bartlett III, said he is never ceased to be amazed by the reaction people have when they talk about knowing his grandad.
“Whenever my granddad’s name gets mentioned to one of his old comrades or friends, a broad smile comes across their face. They tell me how contagious his smile and personality was, and how great a guy he was. I’m proud to have been related to someone like my grandad,” Donnie said.
Despite the pain and hardships, Davis said she still sees the good that God brought out of the bad.
“I have never questioned God, and I didn’t even after my Donnie died,” Davis said. “I’ve seen His plan in action, and God used Donnie to serve as a tremendous blessing to me and my family. I think Donnie’s life, as a man, father and soldier, will continue to make an impact on both those that knew and those that didn’t. He was an all-American guy.”