Born to wave the flag
by Ken Newton, Alonzo Weston
Sunday, May 24, 2009

There was little doubt William Allen was destined to serve his country in the U.S. Marines. His life and, ultimately, his death seemed inextricably bound by that call to service.


Marvin Heffner regrets buying the vodka. Before that last bottle, William Allen stood on the doorstep of a fresh start.

He had just moved into a small midtown apartment next to the Life Church with Mr. Heffner, a man he’d met in Heartland’s mental health unit a few months earlier.

Here, he hoped to find the life and peace of mind that he lost in the Iraqi desert. At the same time, he hoped to lose the haunting images of war that followed him home.

But there Mr. Allen lay, the morning after moving to a new life, helpless on the living room floor of the sparsely furnished apartment, his body gripped by a too-potent mix of alcohol and pills.

Mr. Heffner woke late and made his morning coffee. He looked over and saw Mr. Allen and the young man’s girlfriend asleep on the floor. The woman awoke and talked about her feelings for William and the meals she would make with the $400 worth of newly purchased groceries in the cupboard.

Then Mr. Heffner, who gets around his apartment in a Jazzy power chair, saw Mr. Allen writhing on the floor in seizure. He called 911, and the Fire Department first responders found Mr. Heffner on the floor giving CPR to his friend.

Mr. Allen’s heart stopped twice on the way to the ambulance.

Mary Ellis, William’s mother, got a call and arrived at the scene in time to see the paramedics’ bags and equipment strewn on the ground outside the apartment building. After she raced to the hospital, doing 70 in her PT Cruiser, she learned her son had coded three times.

According to hospital records, Mr. Allen was admitted to the intensive care unit around 4 p.m. His mother noticed that his hands were purple and dried tears were in his eyes.

“The doctor told me he laid there and died all night long,” she said.

The death certificate said William Joseph Allen III died at 11:15 p.m. on March 4, 2009. He was 26 years old. The coroner listed the cause of death as an accidental overdose of alcohol and drugs, Oxycotin.

Mr. Heffner didn’t know about the drugs. He bought Mr. Allen a fifth of vodka at the Apple Market the evening before. Only three good swallows were left in the bottle that morning.

“If I knew he was medicating more than what he had and that bottle of vodka, I would have never gone to bed,” Mr. Heffner said.


“Some folks are born made to wave the flag” sang John Fogerty on the song “Fortunate Son.” No millionaire’s or senator’s son went off to war, no one born with a “silver spoon in hand.”

William Allen was Mary Ellis’ oldest son. A young man born to wave the flag, who loved his country and dreamed of serving in the military for as long as his mother could remember. She shopped for his birthday presents at a military surplus store.

“Every birthday I’d tell him, ‘OK we’re going to go down to the army surplus and you can get one thing,’” Ms. Ellis said.

Mr. Allen played war games. He wore camouflage clothing. He volunteered at the Marine Corps recruiting office.

“He was totally army,” said Loretta Miller, Mr. Allen’s aunt who baby-sat him as a youngster. “Outdoors, he got bows and arrows, the fake one ... he was all outdoors.”

Mr. Allen was destined for the military. Some strands of his life just seemed to braid together with recent military history.

He was sworn in to the Marine Corps on Sept. 10, 2001, one day before the terrorist attacks. He flew into Kuwait on Feb. 6, 2003, his mother’s birthday. Mr. Allen was a solid-to-the-core patriotic Marine whose grandfather fought in three wars, who hand-built a flag pole in sixth grade and who served at the beginning of the Iraq war in An Nasiriyah.

Time magazine captured Mr. Allen on its Sept. 26, 2005, cover. The headline above his head asked the question: “Is It Too Late to Win the War?”

The magazine also recognized his death in its “Milestones” column in the May 4 issue.

To most who knew him, William Allen was a hero, a young man who made good on his dream to join the service and defend his country. But he also was a man tortured by his service. By most accounts, William Allen came back from Iraq a different man.

After going AWOL, he split time in mental health facilities and jail. Other times, he stayed at the home of any friend or relative where he hadn’t worn out his welcome.

He suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and many times would go into “war mode” and get violent, speaking in German and attacking anyone near him.

Zack Ellis remembered an incident when Mr. Allen, his brother, walked into the living room while he and a friend were playing a war video game. William flipped out, he said.

“He threw the controllers and started speaking in German and started yelling and cussing at the TV,” Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Allen destroyed the letters from his time overseas, leaving empty envelopes in their place as if removing any traces of himself from the postmark address. He threw away most of his medals and other reminders. He even hid the magazine cover that bore his image.

His mother just happened to find it hidden on a storage shelf on her back porch one day.

“He felt ashamed that he went in there and did what he did to the Iraqis when there were no weapons of mass destruction,” Ms. Ellis said.

Lori Miller, the choir teacher at the Mid-Buchanan schools that William attended, said she was deeply touched when she found out about the cover. It didn’t surprise her that he would not beat his chest about it.

“He was a quiet hero, and he was one who probably never considered himself a hero,” she said.

Pastor Joe Voga would befriend and baptize Mr. Allen after his return from war. He was still fighting the battles, the minister said.

“He hated the word hero. He just wanted normal,” he said.


Mr. Allen grew up in a rural Eden. His mom and stepfather, Michael Ellis, raised their six children on a 10-acre spread on Possum Holler Road in Agency, Mo. The tall cottonwoods, oak and walnut trees, the slumbering creek that flooded every once in a while allowed space for both a young boy and his imagination to roam.

It also provided the perfect setting for after-school paintball war games, which Mr. Allen played most every day with his best friend, Shelby Drier, and any other neighborhood kid they could find. Even adults would play sometimes.

“They’d go do strategies out on the farm, and that probably started in the fourth grade,” Ms. Ellis said as she stood at the end of the now overgrown lot that she once called home. She now lives in the basement of a friend’s house, in a small room with photos and reminders of her oldest son.

Only the lilac bushes, wild roses, tire swing and a spotlight that her husband put up to keep the coyotes away are still there on Possum Holler. Those things and lots of other memories.

Like the time William took an old bicycle handlebar, stretched a piece of wire and devised a pulley to go across the big ravine on the farm.

“Like today,” Ms. Ellis said as she looked up at a powder blue spring afternoon sky and swatted away gnats and bumblebees, “if he was out of school, they would be planning where they were going to go, who was on which team and what color paint they were going to use.”

James Dye, a childhood friend, played with William in some of those war games. He said he practically lived in the Ellis house, he stayed there so much.

“William could be something. He was as smart as could be,” Mr. Dye said. “Ask him anything about U.S. history, he could answer off the top of his head.”

Sometimes William dreamed of playing football for the Miami Dolphins, Mr. Dye added. When it turned baseball season, he wanted to be a baseball player, He dreamt of being in the military year round.

“He had all the dreams that all kids had,” Mr. Dye said.

William never drank as a kid either, he said. As he got older, he loved steak, Pepsi and Winston cigarettes.

For William, it was all about family, Mr. Dye added. His stepfather, Mike, was like a real father to both of them, teaching them how to drive. He and Ms. Ellis would later divorce.

Ms. Ellis said that Mr. Allen’s real dad was an abusive alcoholic. William Allen Jr. died at the age of 32 after being hit by a car in 1995.

William was in sixth grade when he died, and it bothered him a lot, Ms. Ellis said.

That’s when she took steps to enroll her son in an alternative class at Mid-Buchanan School.

“We thought maybe if we got him into a smaller situation, more hands on,” his mother said. “They’re there to help if the kid wants to talk about grievances of any sort.”


Some of the teachers who knew William and taught him at both Mid-Buchanan and the alternative school remember him as a thoughtful and polite student, a soft-spoken kid who wore camouflage jackets and his hair military close.

“He wasn’t a short-sleeve type of kid,” said Lori Godfrey, who taught Mr. Allen as a junior at the alternative school. Out of all her students, Mr. Allen was the only one who wrote her a note when her husband was ill.

“He was very thoughtful in that way,” Mrs. Godfrey said.

She kept the small journal Mr. Allen made for a class assignment. It included a pencil-drawn Humvee on the cover.

“His main thoughts were going to the service,” the teacher said. “He just looked up to the military and thought that was honorable.”

Mr. Allen used to like hanging out in the office of school nurse Patti Jones. After time in the Marines, he came back to see her, decked out in his dress blues.

“He was just beaming, he was so proud,” she said.

Lori Miller, the school choir teacher, remembers a young man who was very dedicated and serious about his goal in life. He wasn’t much for choir except when the group did patriotic music.

“You could tell that was something that piqued his interest,” she said. Ms. Miller still remembered how polite and respectful Mr. Allen was as a student. He was hard to forget, she said, especially his eyes.

“Very serious, very haunting eyes,” she said.

Ms. Miller led the Mid-Buchanan student choir when they sang, “In the Garden” and “Onward Christian Soldiers” at Mr. Allen’s funeral.


Larry Buchanan is a retired Marine and Vietnam War veteran. He saw Mr. Allen in Woody’s store in Agency one day, the teenager wearing an Army T-shirt. He was between his junior and senior years of high school, and an Army recruiter had already approached him.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you go see the Marine recruiter and see what they can do for you?’” Mr. Buchanan said.

Mr. Allen took his oath as a Marine almost a year before graduating from high school.

His mother remembers him saying, “My brothers and sisters are out there and they need me.”

Ms. Ellis keeps a freezer bag full of letters her son wrote home from boot camp in San Diego on her coffee table. A huge coffee table clock that stopped running a while back.

Mr. Allen wrote about how easy the training was and how he had made a lot of friends.

“ DIs are cool,” he wrote out in longhand in one letter in July 2002.

He wrote home about God and how much he loved his family. He prayed for the folks at home.

But at least in letter form, boot camp sounded a little different.

“They make us scream ‘kill’ all the time and it gets old to me because I won’t end up like that in the end,” Mr. Allen wrote. “I will cherish life and not want to take it.”


In Monday’s edition, William Allen deploys to Iraq, the first wave in America’s invasion. Those who knew him see changes when he returns.