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Korea veteran devoted to wounded vets buried in Rock Hill

If Bill Stewart had been in the first Army unit to go into Baghdad or Kabul in this age of televised wars, and shot and wounded almost the first day of combat like he was, he would have been national news.

But Bill Stewart was shot, at age 20, in one of the first bloody battles in Korea. He was treated and later went back to the fighting.

If Bill Stewart had been a prisoner of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, instead of a POW in conditions so horrible in Vietnam like he experienced for a year, the whole world would know his name.

Stewart was a helicopter gunner in his second war - yes, just like the movies, the guy with big heavy gun, hanging out of the side of a Huey in Vietnam, strafing fire toward the ground as the bullets hurtled at his face. At that time, in the 1960s, Bill Stewart volunteered for the most dangerous, deadly job on earth.

But Bill Stewart was not a household name. No movies or documentaries were made about him, even though a calculator would be needed to count all his ribbons and medals during 26 years of service. He was proud to later be called a humble fighter for disabled veterans who lost legs and arms and years to bullets and bombs and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder - some of the same wounds he had all through the rest of his life.

With the fanfare of a Fort Jackson U.S. Army Honor Guard on Thursday afternoon, Bill Stewart was buried in Rock Hill's Grand View Memorial Park after dying Sunday at age 81. His widow received an American flag that had been draped over his coffin.

Stewart was longtime commander of the York County Disabled American Veterans group. He drove his own car using his own money to take uncountable people to VA hospitals or to help obtain benefits.

When the county gave the organization money for a van he drove that, wherever he had to go, to get somebody who lost an arm or a leg or a psyche in a war, to a hospital.

Johnnie Robinson, retired former Post 2889 Veterans of Foreign Wars commander in Rock Hill, helped Stewart with the local DAV in its infancy. First they drove an old jalopy that had no room for a wheelchair. They went anyway.

"Bill Stewart cared about disabled veterans more than anybody," said Robinson.

The Rev. Ken Jones, a longtime friend and Stewart's pastor for 20 years, said at the funeral Thursday that Stewart, "did not brag or talk about the service: He just did it."

Another friend and pastor, the Rev. Michael Beeks, spoke about how Stewart had to wrestle with all the awful things he had to do, and see, and endure, in combat in two wars.

"And then he came back and served other veterans, bought them Christmas presents and groceries with his own money," Beeks said.

"Simply, we, America, owe this man."

Stewart was a life member at the VFW. In his honor, since he died Sunday, a drink can, a Dr. Pepper, has been left on a spot at the bar that has been untouched for five days.

Stewart was not a drinker, so the can is not a beer can. A barstool was turned backward, and tilted against the bar, with his name on it.

"No one will touch this spot until Bill Stewart is put in the ground," said Don Vinsack, the VFW commander.

"It shows that it is his place only."

For that burial Thursday, young soldiers came up from Fort Jackson in Columbia to serve as honor guard and rifle team.

Rarely does this happen - Usually such a display is for active duty soldiers who die in wars. Bill Stewart, a soldier to the end, was buried next to the veterans circle near the cemetery's rear. His buddies in the local Corvair Club were pallbearers.

The sign finally came down at the VFW, but not before plenty of toasts to Bill Stewart.

The toasts came from guys with limps from wars, and steel plates in their heads from wars, and they said that Bill Stewart who fought two wars and then fought for them at home deserved a raised glass.

And a lot more, too.