We are all freemen and women because of battles fought and victories won. When the cause was justly determined by our president and commander-in-chief to be absolutely necessary, these veterans, as those in every generation before us, took it to the enemy, no matter where around the world, to protect American soil…to protect American values…to protect American family. One might argue the totality of certain victories, but I assert that one can’t dismiss the fact that in over 200 years no foreign army has ever set foot on U.S. soil…not because of diplomacy… but because our veterans provided a feared shield.
But, our current liberties were paid for with a steep price by not only those service members who died in combat whom we commemorate on Memorial Day each year…but also by another special group. So, today we…the veterans gathered here in Sutton…send a solemn promise… from our heart…to the really special three million fellow vets who are now coping with a combat disability. “We will never, nor will we ever let anyone else forget your pain and suffering…nor the noble cause of it.”
As good citizens though, every veteran volunteered for service or willingly answered the call of their country. Each one left loved ones and friends at home for extended periods. Each one fought heroically…or supported others to do so…on battlefields that many of us had never heard of before then. Each and every veteran gave their youth… the very, very prime of their life for their country, and each stood ready to give their all…even their life if necessary to protect country or fellow servicemen. For their individual efforts, the United States of America and many other countries around the world are safer because of veterans like those here today.
Why did veterans assume such a responsibility? Why did they leave the comfort of home…leave behind the support of family and friends…to take on an often more unappreciated job than they might have had back home. And, why is it that a larger number of veterans come disproportionably from the south…and more specifically from the Appalachian region? Experts will argue that it’s simply due to socio/economical reasons, i.e., lack of jobs back home, etc., but I personally have a different opinion and its roots go back to my childhood in West Virginia.
Yes, I’m a native of West Virginia and proud to claim so and, in fact, I’ve worn my ball cap with the ‘WV’ emblem at all book signing events as I promoted my book across the USA over the past three years. I grew up the son of a coal miner not far from here in McDowellCounty which is the most southern county in West Virginia, and my senior year at BigCreekHigh School was immortalized by the movie, “October Skies”. During childhood, I roamed our beautiful mountains often and I came to love them dearly, and, later in life, I came to appreciate all the survival skills that my ‘hide and seek’ play time in our wild mountains had taught me. More important though, I came to appreciate what my interaction with adult ‘Mountaineers’ had taught me about proper priorities in life. Both lessons served me well later and in fact my experience while growing up in West Virginia is the main reason that I am still alive today…as those who have read my book will attest.
Early on, my family and the old timers in McDowellCounty instilled in me one guiding principle which influenced me to join the military and I think that it probably applies to other veterans here today. Three simple words, “God…Country…Family… served me well throughout my 22 years in the Navy and continue to do so even more today. And, I think that principle is the reason that so many from the mountains serve their country. I don’t remember when I first heard the term but it became one which I carried with me when I left the mountains. It’s a simple phrase but one which we don’t hear now as often as I did while growing up. On this special day it’s very audible in my head and I once again hear an older ‘Mountaineer’ advising me, “Do it son… Live your life for God, for country and for family…in that order.”
In my mind, that came to mean, “Be right with God… Serve and fight for your country… Support, love and never abandon your family….” And, throughout my life, I have found that simple principle to be most often known and adhered to by citizens in the Appalachian region. So today, it’s nice to be among folks who truly understand what it means to honor, “God, Country, Family….”
Today, Veteran’s Day, is a time for me to talk about how the word “Country” played out for me and I’m sure that vets here today have similar memories and stories.
In 1945, I was only five years of age. That year, many of the WWII vets were discharged quickly from the military and the phone service was so inadequate that their relatives in McDowellCounty didn’t always know in advance when their loved one might arrive home to my small community in Bartley. The vets usually sauntered back into the neighborhood unannounced…a lone, solitary, man with sunken eyes and a mind full of horror…with a duffel bag over a shoulder… tired after years of war and after having thumbed a ride from the county seat in Welch for their final leg home. Each time, I was honored to witness the cries of joy…the hugs and kisses that each and every vet received… and those happy, glorious scenes are engrained in my mind. Our WWII vets had prevented an enemy invasion of our country and it was obvious even to me, a small kid, that all of my adult neighbors loved and adored them for doing so. Every little kid loves heroes so my dream became to one day join the military to serve my country.
Years later, in 1953, as a 13 year old lad, I was a huge fan of baseball and had embraced a second dream that one day I would play baseball in the major league like my baseball idols Ted Williams, Ralph Kiner, and Nellie Fox. But, I now had a dilemma, like I’m sure that many of the vets here experienced…whether to serve ‘God, Country, Family’, or to follow another path.
In 1953, Ted Williams was the premier baseball player in the country and I knew that he had been a Marine pilot during WWII. That year, it was national news when he was recalled to active duty for the Korean War but he was offered stateside duty because of his baseball status and past war experience. But, Ted declined the offer and elected to instead fly combat missions in Korea. I wanted to emulate Ted…to at least strive to play pro ball and to also serve my country as a pilot.
Well…In 1960, I made my college baseball team as the starter at second base and I played that position for three years. During Christmas break of my senior year in college, I married the love of my life…still dreaming about pro baseball or being a pilot but with only one more college season to convince major league scouts that I had potential. However, after baseball season that year, my coach…a WWII vet…didn’t mince words with his advice. Coach said, “You can waste your time in the minor leagues or you can do something for your country.” He recommended that I pursue my dream about becoming a pilot? Oddly, my football coach at BigCreekHigh School was also a WWII vet and he had made an earlier similar recommendation to me so advice from veterans definitely shaped my life.
Shortly after that, military recruiters arrived on campus and a really sharply dressed Marine officer was the first to pounce on me as I walked into the recruiting room. In the bat of an eye, he had me yearning to lead men in battle as a Marine officer instead of flying jets. Ladies…Is there anything more handsome than a Marine in full dress uniform?
That evening, I began to inform my wife about the Marine program to gain her support and mid-way she began to cry. Her father had served in the Army during WWII and he was killed in combat so she couldn’t stand the thought of me also carrying a rifle in battle. My wife gently reminded me of my dream to become a pilot so next day I signed up with the Navy recruiter…to train and then fly jets from the flight deck of aircraft carriers.
In a few days, I encountered a situation which again nearly ended my dream of being a pilot but for the grace of a fellow ‘Mountaineer’.
During the physical examination to determine if I was medically fit for the Navy flight program, I was told to step on the weight scales in just my skinny. The medical corpsman noted my weight and casually stated that it was below the minimum allowed for Navy pilots. I had flunked the exam and was told that I could put my clothes on and that I could go home as soon as his supervisor signed the papers. Who knew there was a minimum weight limit for anything? This was devastating news for me. As I stood there in shock, a more senior corpsman walked in and he, by the grace of God, just happened to be an old high school friend. Smiling at me, he asked why I was there. After hearing my bad news, he took the other corpsman aside and, lo and behold, I now weighed more than the scales showed… and I had passed the physical. That afternoon, the base CO administered my oath of allegiance into the Navy so I owe my Navy career to another vet… a Mountaineer school mate from BigCreekHigh School.
Six years later…on May 31, 1968 …while piloting my A-7 Corsair jet during the Vietnam War…I was shot down in Laos by enemy anti-aircraft fire and my rescue 40 hours later was one of the largest, most dramatic, most improbable rescues of the Vietnam War.
Following a bomb run, a portion of my jet’s right wing was blown off by enemy gunfire and it was only because of a timely panic call for me to eject by my ‘Forward Air Controller’ that I got out of my tumbling jet before it hit the ground. That Forward Air Controller is now a 73 year old veteran and I’ve thanked him and God many times since then for watching over me.
Next, while floating down in my parachute, enemy foot soldiers tried to kill me with rifle fire but missed, and I landed 50 feet from an enemy soldier in dense jungle. He also fired and missed but I learned later that I had unfortunately landed in the midst of nearly 10,000 other enemy troops. During the next five hours, enemy troops were constantly breathing down my neck during a nerve wracking chase to capture or kill me before night fall.
Over the next two nights and 39 hours, I felt like I was on a never ending rabbit hunting trip back home in West Virginia…only the roles were reversed. I was the rabbit in hiding and on numerous times the enemy came close enough to spook me and then another chase would occur. Encounter after encounter…I wouldn’t give up and they wouldn’t stop chasing me.
I played my rabbit role well enough and through my skills honed in West Virginia I evaded the enemy troops that first night, the next day, and a really scary, and eventful second night…before I was finally rescued on the third day. But, the enemy opposition was so ferocious and intense that a total of seven planes were lost and one other pilot was also shot down during my rescue. He was later captured and spent five and a half years as a POW but he also is a living veteran and a close friend of mine now.
As one female reader of my book told me, I escaped death on eleven occasions in one forty hour period and in her opinion it was due to God’s over whelming grace. Well, by my count, it was more than 11 times but I do know for certain that my life was saved by earthly angels in the form of dedicated, heroic rescue pilots who risked their own life for country and a fellow warrior.
So, on this appropriate day, I pay homage to the one hundred or so heroic rescue pilots, now veterans, who assisted me in a dire situation. Even though they didn’t personally know me before then…and even though they, as they tell me, were scared out of their wits that they would die while trying to do so, they nevertheless braved intense enemy gunfire for three consecutive days to save a fellow warrior…offering up their life to save mine…as all of the vets present here today would have done.
My rescuers are now veterans and some of them bear the scars of combat on my behalf…both physical and psychological scars…as a result of their action to rescue me during what was considered an impossible mission by all involved. They are not only veterans; they are real life heroes to me and I’m sure that other veterans present today also owe their career or life to another veteran and that’s why we have undying respect for each other. We understand the value of the words, “For Country”, and their cost.
Fortunately, no Americans died during my rescue. Sadly though, I have personally served with warrior friends who died in other battles…just as I’m sure many of the other vets have who are here today…and we never forget the lost ones. In one devastating moment… during a fireball explosion in flight for pilots…or when a squad buddy stepped on a land mine…friends simply disappeared from sight…too quickly to seem real then or now. Although they are physically gone, we remember them all…their smiles…their dreams…their courageous devotion to duty. Their spirits hover near by us each day…pleading that we and others never forget that they too followed the principle, “Do it for country.” They gave their all for country and family...even for an unpopular cause at times.
In closing, I want to acknowledge one other group of real patriots who are dear to my heart…the spouses of veterans. I have the utmost respect for any spouse who played dual roles as mother and father during a veteran’s service and I appreciate the extra work that required. It took a hardy soul and a love of country to do that so excuse me if it sounds tacky but to those wives present today, “You truly stood by your man and you too served your country. All spouses have our gratitude and love today.”
To the veterans who are present today, I salute you for your noble service and I’m grateful to God for sparing those of us who survived combat. “To each veteran, I pray that you will have smooth sailing in a long life and that God will bless you …for answering the call…for serving our country so faithfully and diligently.” You deserve nothing less….
Thank you for your kind attention….