I’ve been asked many times by readers and friends to relate my military experiences for “A Veteran’s Story.” Well, perhaps at a later date, but for now I’m delighted and honored to represent and convey the stories of my brothers and sisters. I will grant one personal narrative, a report on the best Veterans Day this old ‘Nam vet has ever experienced.
The best Veterans Day ever began about two months ago with an email from Mrs. Katy King, a teacher at the General Ray Davis Middle School. She asked for my assistance in the planning for the school’s very first Patriotic Program on Veterans Day. I had penned a story on the Medal of Honor Marine whose namesake graces the school, so I understood the reverence behind the invitation. I was grateful for the opportunity.
Mrs. King, other faculty members, and I met to hash out the agenda for one heck of a Veterans Day tribute. After leaving the meeting my only thought was, “Pete, old boy, you may have overextended your contacts and organizational abilities this time.” God granted me good luck and good friends; we pulled it off. So here it is: Veterans Day, 2014.
My first call that morning came from Mrs. June Hipps, the widow of Iwo Jima veteran Gerald Hipps. Her husband guarded the celebrated flag-raisers on Mount Suribachi with his Browning automatic rifle before fighting his way across Iwo Jima for 36 days. Out of 240 Marines from Easy Company, Gerald was one of the 27 who walked off the island. Mrs. Hipps wished me a blessed Veterans Day and thanked me for my articles. I could not have wanted a more heartfelt send-off on my very special day.
I’ll avoid too many details and cut to the chase. Lt. Col. Jack Coyle and my daughter’s beau, Mr. Bill LeCount, helped me clear debris from the football field so the Army Aviation Historical Foundation could land a helicopter safely, either the legendary Huey or deadly Cobra gunship. I guess the AAHF couldn’t decide on which one because they flew in both choppers. Huey pilots Ron Disney, Army combat veteran of Vietnam, and Joe Wade, US Army National Guard, had Cobra gunship pilot and Desert Storm veteran LTC John Woodward on their tails. Along with the crew members, George Meeker, Vietnam veteran, Saint Clair Williams, USMC veteran of Afghanistan, and SFC Frank Speights, US Army, the choppers made a low level pass over the school that rocked the walls.
The students were ecstatic. “Whoaaaaaaa, did you feel that?” Students on the outside witnessed the choppers gracefully land on their football field as the Cobra bent trees over with its prop wash. Here come the students, by class and grade. “Oh, man, the Huey has 2 machine guns attached!” (Non-lethal, of course). “Dude, a Gatling Gun is on the nose of that other thing!” The aviators allowed the students inside the Huey including the opportunity to sit in a pilot’s seat. Students, and even a few teachers, were allowed to sit behind the machine guns. I’m not sure, but I believe a couple of teachers were disappointed to discover the machine guns were non-lethal.
The Cobra gunship fascinated the students. A sleek but deadly aircraft, the Cobra saved a lot of lives in Vietnam. You may have heard the song, ‘What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger;’ well, that doesn’t apply to a Cobra gunship. It will kill you. A special needs young man kept saying, “This is awesome, this is awesome,” as he gawked at the Cobra. I don’t think I have ever seen a happier face.
And this is where the aviators excelled; this, to me, was the best event of the day, the pilots and crews helping the special needs kids through the Huey and helping several of them into the pilot’s seat. One of the girls could hardly walk, but I noticed how she picked up her pace as she neared the Huey. Nothing was going to hold her back, and nothing kept her out of a pilot’s seat. Special kids on a very special day…..that, really is special.
Time for the choppers to ‘dust off.’ The rotor blades start to whine and whirl, prop wash blows dead grass off the football field into the hairdos of 8th graders. They begin laughing; so did I. As the choppers gain their power for dust off, I spot four Stearman biplanes approaching from the West for their flyover. Uh-oh, choppers taking off into the flight path of Stearman biplanes. This is not a good thing.
I metamorphosed into Alfred E. Newman mode: ‘What? Me worry?’ Pete Smart was in the lead plane, a KC-135 pilot and Vietnam veteran. Larry Taylor flew the number two position, a C-130 pilot in Vietnam. My friend and fellow veteran, John Laughter, a Vietnam combat fighter pilot with experience in both the F-8 Crusader and F-4 Phantom jet, was in the number three position. Vic Syaracuse flew in the number four position, a highly skilled aircraft builder and Air Force veteran of Vietnam. With that much know-how behind the sticks one can understand a ‘What? Me worry?’ mentality.
These professional aviators even had Jim Ratliff, a Conyers resident, on ‘ready standby’ with his Stearman just in case one of the other aircraft needed to abort.
The two choppers took off, rock and rolled the school building, circled the field then disappeared below the tree line. One of the students asked, “Where did they go?” Up came the Huey at treetop level then passed over the field at about 150 feet with the Cobra on its tail laying down a trail of smoke. On came the Stearmans. These skilled warriors made three passes. The first pass was in a Finger Four Strong Right and the second pass was in the diamond formation as the slot man laid smoke. The third and final pass was the awe-inspiring ‘Missing Man’ formation. As they flew over the school, one peeled away trailing smoke and headed west. The ‘Missing Man’ always heads west. In pilot jargon ‘heading west’ means he’s gone, lost in combat or an accident, a traditional tribute to those that gave their all.
As the choppers and Stearmans winged their way home and 8th graders dusted dead grass out of their hair, the student body began assembling in the gymnasium for the Patriotic Program. A thousand students filled the bleachers while VIPs such as Commissioners Janice Van Ness and Richard Oden took seats near the podium. Veterans, families and other guests completed the gathering.
Patriotic music, the posting of the colors, singing the National Anthem, and a drill by Heritage High School’s ROTC started the festivities. RCPS Superintendent Richard Autry and Principal Mike Mauriello presented opening remarks, the band played, then Principal Mauriello introduced me as a guest speaker.
Yours truly gave a presentation on the true cost of freedom, plus ended the event with a recital of “The Final Inspection.” Herb Smith, a former Tomb Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns gave an informative speech on the history of Arlington National Cemetery. The school chorus gave a presentation and the cheerleaders performed. Before my recitation I introduced a very special guest, Mrs. Anne Goodwin. She served in the Army Air Corp during WWII and an elegant 90-year-old. The students and gathering gave her a standing ovation.
Herb Smith and I also received standing ovations but we were the ones who should have been applauding. The students at General Ray Davis Middle School range in ages from 11 to 13 years old; often considered a bit disorderly phase. Not these kids. These students were gracious and respectful, and more importantly, these kids listened.
The students at General Ray David Middle School made me feel good. I was proud to be one of their speakers, and I was proud of them. I felt as if the insults and disrespect endured upon my return from Vietnam had come full circle and closure had been obtained. Yes, I know, many other schools most likely had the same kind of program, the same type of celebration. But they didn’t have a Cobra gunship and Huey chopper sitting on their football field; they didn’t have the Stearman Squadron performing an airshow, and they didn’t have me. Not that I was important, because I was just another patriot who answered the call to duty and did what he had to do. But I did serve in Vietnam, and as I stood there receiving a long standing ovation from the Davis Middle School students, I felt the specters of Vietnam leave my soul. I was not basking in the glory, but I was basking in a long needed acceptance. My war was finally over.
To the students and faculty at Davis Middle School, you made this old ‘Nam veteran a very happy guy on Veterans Day. Thank you.
Hoooorah! (On Veterans Day, this was a Davis Middle School thing; ask one of the students, they’ll be glad to explain)
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.