Enlisted to Serve


After her son died in Vietnam, this mother learned of his impressive legacy of service, a legacy that changed her life.

Eva Thompson started getting the phone calls just after the local paper carried the news of her son’s death. Invariably, the callers began with words like these: “You don’t know me, but I want to tell you what your son Dale did for me.”

Sister Thompson received nearly 150 of those calls. They taught her much that she had not known about her younger son’s selflessness and sacrifice in the service of others. But they were only the beginning of the lesson in service that she would learn through him.

It had come as a shock to his family when Dale joined the U.S. Marines at the height of the war in Vietnam. Proud of his brother Gary’s missionary service, he had shown every indication of wanting to serve as a missionary himself.

It was Gary who had led the way into the Church after the Thompsons moved into a home between two Latter-day Saint families in Henderson, Nevada, in the mid-1960s. Baptized first, Gary helped his mother, who had been raised in another church, resolve conflicts in her mind about the Book of Mormon. Eva and Dale both received strong spiritual witnesses of the truth of the gospel on the same night, in answer, at least in part, to Gary’s prayers. (Eva’s oldest child, daughter Jeri, was already married when her mother and brothers joined the Church.)

So in 1969 when Dale suddenly announced that he had enlisted in the Marines, his mother and his brother were puzzled. Why, Eva asked, did he want to do that? Dale could answer only that he knew he had to do his part to serve his country. He did not know whether the war was right, but his flag was there, his friends were dying there, and he had a duty. Gary urged him not to pass up the blessings that come from serving a mission. But Dale made himself and his family a promise: while he was in the military, he would also be a missionary.

He kept that promise. He helped eight fellow Marines accept the gospel, and he talked about the Church so much that others began to call him “Brigham” to tease him. He wrote the name proudly on his flak jacket. The men in his unit learned to trust in his spirituality. One day as a medevac helicopter was preparing to lift off from a jungle clearing, a wounded Marine called for Dale to give him a priesthood blessing. Dale used the priesthood to bless six badly wounded men that day. All lived to receive medical help later. Dale, despite his own minor wound, stayed in the field with his unit.

It was the next day that he died, hit by rocket grenades while in an exposed position. Reverently, a few of his buddies held their own quick memorial service for him before moving on.

Dale left one last legacy as a missionary. The following spring—on Mother’s Day in 1970—Eva would receive a letter from a man who had been one of Dale’s commanders. As a result of the young Marine’s example, the captain had investigated the Church on his return from Vietnam. Now the captain, his wife, and two daughters had just been baptized, making a dozen people known to have joined the Church because of Dale’s efforts.

Reaching out to others was a habit he had cultivated well before joining the military, his family learned.

Before her son enlisted in the Marines, Eva had been constantly loaning him money. As soon as he would get his check on payday—he was assistant manager of a grocery store—he would pay his mother back, but then the borrowing would begin again a few days later. When Eva urged him to put something aside for the future, he would tell her, “Oh, Mom, money’s not important—only what you do with it.”

When those telephone calls started after Dale’s death, Eva learned what he had been doing with his money. One former coworker of his, a single mother with young children, said that when Dale had discovered she was living in pain, unable to afford treatment for a medical problem, he made sure she got it, and he paid the cost. When a puppy belonging to another coworker’s little girls was badly injured and the family had no money, Dale took the dog to the veterinarian so the children would not lose their pet. And his generosity was not all financial. An elderly woman told how he had seen her struggling homeward with a load of groceries and had stopped to give her a lift. He arranged to take her shopping on his day off every week after that.

Because of what she had learned through the gospel, Eva knew that her son was not lost to her. Hearing of Dale’s abundant kindness and generosity brought an added measure of comfort.

But there was yet more to learn.

One evening several months after Dale’s death, as Eva was preparing to say her prayers, she was given to understand that an important spiritual experience was coming. It did not happen that night, or the next. But on the third night, after she lay back on her bed following her prayers, she found herself in a beautiful, meadowed place. She heard Dale call her name and saw him running toward her. She ran to meet him, realizing that she was using both legs—something she had not been able to do in her physical body since she had lost a leg to cancer as a young mother. When they met, Dale put his arms around her, picked her up off her feet, and swung her around just as he always had.

Two things he told her during their brief experience changed her perspective on the activities of this life.

First, he let her know that she had almost made a disappointing mistake that day. She knew instantly what he meant. She had awakened that Sunday morning discouraged because of some criticism of her work with the young women of the stake. Hurt, and doubting whether her service really made a difference, she decided to go back to sleep and skip her Church meetings. But she had awakened again with only half an hour to get to the meetinghouse and, feeling an urgency about it, had hurriedly dressed and driven there. Now she was glad, wondering whether this spiritual experience could have come if she had neglected her responsibilities that day.

Dale also spoke to her of the importance of service, saying that the most important things she could do in her life at that point would be those she did for others. He referred to Christ’s words in Matthew 25:40 [Matt. 25:40], “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” and added his testimony that the Savior wants each of us to help others around us.

Eva assured him that she would do so, and Dale replied, “Don’t forget it, Mom.” He emphasized again that she could best contribute by putting herself in a position to help others and responding whenever she saw a need.

What she learned that night “turned my life around,” Eva says.

Gary comments that his mother was always one to be helpful in any way she could. But after this experience, Eva explains, her efforts to help others became more focused on individuals, and she learned to be more sensitive to people’s circumstances or to indications of a need—physical, emotional, or spiritual. Often, she found that her own earlier trials in life had specifically prepared her to help or comfort others in need. When her efforts work out well, she sometimes thinks, “This is another one for you, Dale.”

For more than 25 years, she has given most of her time to the service of others, in teaching and administrative roles with the local school district, in her Church callings (she served 19 years in the Young Women organization), and in her personal life. A dynamic, active woman, Eva learned to snow ski, water ski, and scuba dive despite the loss of one lung as well as her leg. She has given up those activities now that she is in her mid-70s, but she still lets nothing hold her back when it comes to service. Sliding under the steering wheel, she pulls the crutch she uses into her car and is off to meet someone else’s need. No one ever has to worry about Eva keeping up; usually she’s ahead.

As people watch Eva with her children and grandchildren, they see that her first priority is serving her family. Ask what the greatest reward has been for all her efforts in life and she will say it is the way her children have turned out. “Jeri is a wonderful mother—probably the wisest I know—and Gary is an outstanding father.”

Both family and friends have learned how sensitive Eva tries to be to the Spirit’s whisperings. Once, when a granddaughter suddenly needed to make an emergency trip to Phoenix, Arizona, Eva’s car was serviced and ready, the gas tank full, because Eva had heeded a prompting. Not long ago, she helped save someone’s eyesight because she was in position and ready to say yes, as Dale had advised. A woman whose eye was infected turned to the Helping Hands program, a service group connected to the local hospital, for assistance in arranging to visit a doctor. Eva, one of the busiest Helping Hands volunteers and a member of the program’s advisory board, responded to an impression and rearranged her schedule of activities so she could take the woman to a doctor immediately. It turned out that the fast-moving infection would have destroyed the sight in both of the woman’s eyes if it had not been treated without delay.

Eva became involved in the Artie J. Cannon Helping Hands program (named for another Henderson woman well known for her charity) shortly after St. Rose Dominican Hospital organized it in March of 1995. The program serves people who are homebound or need assistance in daily activities. President Joseph Belingheri of the Henderson Nevada Black Mountain Stake had asked Eva, the stake’s public affairs director, to find a service project through which members of the stake might serve the community. Helping Hands was chosen. Now, more than three-quarters of its volunteers are Latter-day Saints. These include Eva’s granddaughter Cindy Marshall and Cindy’s husband, Blain. Cindy, a member of the stake’s public affairs committee, is working to establish a teen volunteer group for Helping Hands. Blain, who has known Eva since he was a seminary student in high school, says her enthusiasm for service is catching; she draws others in.

Despite difficulties she has faced through the years, Eva sees the wisdom of heaven as she looks back on the way her life has unfolded. She is grateful to know as each day’s opportunities come that “I’m in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.”

Opportunities to serve others, she says, have always been blessings, not burdens. “This feeling that the Lord is able to use you is one of the most humbling things in the whole world. I feel very, very grateful that I’ve had the life I’ve had.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Robert T. Barrett