VARINA, Va. (WTVR) - The summer of '69 - a huge transition year here in the US. But nothing like the hell of Vietnam.
Enter the hero: a 20-year-old troublemaker from Oregon Hill whose parents likely wondered if his antics would lead him across the street - to the state pen.
Instead, their boy brought them to the White House to receive the highest honor in the land.
Our story begins with James Fleming of Varina, a patriotic history buff. A while back he was walking though the Glendale National Cemetery in eastern Henrico County when he saw a headstone that made him stop.
“A medal of honor,” he recalled thinking. “They just don’t give them out like talking about it.”
Indeed. There have been only a little more than 3,400 recipients of this highest of military honors throughout US history. Roughly 50 have been Virginians - less than 10 from Richmond.
Fleming looked down at the small, otherwise unremarkable military headstone and wondered, “what would motivate somebody to do that?”
He started searching cyberspace for the story of Army Corporal Michael Fleming Folland. He found a photograph and the citation explaining what this Richmonder did to earn the Medal of Honor, a Bronze Star with Oak Cluster, Purple Heart and other medals - what this young man died for in Vietnam on July 3, 1969 at the age of 20.
Fleming searched military and ancestry databases, searching for details and relatives.
And he reached out to me, knowing I would have the same hunger to find more about this somewhat hidden hero.
Yes, Folland has been remembered. There’s a memorial bridge named after him – the Route 60 bridge over the Jackson River at Covington in Alleghany County.
You can find these remembrances online: “Mike, it was so many years ago we were at Boy's Home in Covington, Virginia growing up together. We now have a scholarship in your name on the Hill. Bless you Brother.” - Joe Mullen
"My stepfather, James Edward Lewis, was the C.O. who threw back the first grenade. He carried a clipping about Michael's MOH award in his wallet for the rest of his life -- he clearly never forgot this great sacrifice that saved his own life. "- Robert Lunday
There are other mentions from those who served with him. You can find that Folland graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and that he played basketball.
And you can read what he did in Vietnam that July day 45 years ago:
Company D, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 199th Infantry Brigade. During a firefight on that day, in Long Khanh Province, Republic of Vietnam, Folland smothered the blast of an enemy-thrown hand grenade with his body, sacrificing his life to protect those around him.
Moments before, they had been ambushed during a recon patrol. Folland stood up to draw fire while laying down suppressive fire. Then came the grenade that no one could reach in time.
But who was this young man, really?
We reached on Facebook and found his Richmond nephew – and some of the story behind the gravestone. As it turns out, Folland has several living relatives – but no descendants.
And, as it turns out, our hero was a tough guy from an Oregon Hill, a historically white, blue-collar neighborhood known for Irish immigrants, firefighters, cops, street fighters and virtually no homicides despite its rough-and-tumble reputation.
Folland came from a family largely made up of steelworkers.
“He was a little hard-headed, troublemaking,” recalled his nephew, Lloyd “Chip” Folland of Chesterfield. “Spent some time in a juvenile detention center up in Northern Virginia. They actually have a plaque in the cafeteria with his face on it, saying you CAN become something.”
Times were tight back then, Chip recalled. His Uncle Mike – who was really like an older brother to Chip and his sisters – came to stay with their family at one point. Chip was jut 9 or 10 at the time, but he remembers his uncle as a great guy who was a lot of fun. He recalls Mike handing him some fresh milk and donuts through a window, finding out later that his uncle had borrowed them in those tough times.
Mike Folland joined the Army straight out of high school. “He just decided to grow up and change his life and make something of himself,” Chip recalled.
Mike Folland joined the Army, volunteering for active duty in Vietnam. “He wanted to go,” Chip said.
In the military, the formerly wild Mike found “his niche,” his nephew said. Mike had a fiancée as he went off to war. He made corporal and was apparently hoping to make a career out of it when he smothered the grenade.
Nearly 45 years later, nephew Chip gets choked up talking about it. “I actually talked to one of the guys that was in the ambush . . . he gave up everything” for them.
Chip Folland’s son, Ryan Holland, joined the military and wrote to me that his great uncle “is a source of great pride for me in my own military career.
There are others who have reached out with their remembrances, including a woman whose brother went through basic training and to Vietnam with Mike Folland. People who want to you to know that Mike Folland is worth remembering.
James Fleming, the history buff whose wandering in the tidy Glendale National Cemetery started this story, is grateful that the cold headstone stone has come warmly alive.
He quoted a scripture-based saying: “No greater love can a man have than (when) he lays down his life for his friends. That’s what comes to mind.”
Michael F. Folland would’ve been turning 65 in a few weeks. He was a casualty in a war that many would like to forget, a war that claimed roughly 50,000 American lives – a number that would’ve been a little higher were it not for this tough young man from Oregon Hill.
Read about him here: