The Soldier Who Survived, the Helicopter Pilot Who Did Not
(Published in the June 1, 2011 edition of the Mt. Morris/Clio Birch Run/Bridgeport Herald)
From A to Zowie
The soldier who survived, the helicopter pilot who did not
By Richard Zowie
Getting pictures of Memorial Day activities reminded me of how the day when America honors those who gave their lives for freedom almost took on a personal tone in my family.
My Uncle Jerry (Dad’s younger brother), served in the Vietnam War as an Army combat engineer in the First Cavalry Division from 1965-1966.
A few years ago, I spoke to Uncle Jerry about his military experience. So did my son, Charles, who loves the military and aspires to join the Marines someday. During his time in Vietnam, Uncle Jerry got to go to a USO show and see Bob Hope perform.
He also got shaved regularly by a barber who later turned out to be affiliated with the North Vietnamese.
I have wondered at times why the barber never slit his throat, and I think it’s because he was there to gather information; to be hostile like that would have blown his cover.
As Uncle Jerry told us about his service in Vietnam, it made me wonder what it was like for my grandmother. All three of grandma’s sons served in the military. Uncle Don, the oldest, is retired Air Force. Dad spent four years in the Army during the Cold War.
In that year from 1965 to 1966, when Uncle Jerry was in Vietnam during a time when many service members returned home in body bags (and some are still Missing in Action), it must’ve been rough for her. She liked to garden, play music and keep herself busy. What was it like for her when there was a knock on the front door? Did she ever worry there would be military personnel there with tragic news?
It must’ve been a relief to open the door and see the mailman there delivering some sort of package. Or for it to be a friend who wanted to visit. Or even a young boy who was going door-to-door to sell items to raise money for some school project.
My oldest sister, Sabrina, was a little girl when Uncle Jerry left for Vietnam. The photos I see of him visiting with her and my parents before he shipped out shows a tiny, clingy girl who loved her uncle very much. If the worst had happened, I wonder what it would’ve been like if she’d ever asked, “Mommy, why doesn’t Uncle Jerry ever come visit anymore?” or if she’d seen my parents crying and wondered why they were doing so?
I try not to dwell on this too much because what’s important is Uncle Jerry made it back.
Others haven’t been as fortunate.
I have a POW/MIA bracelet of a young Army helicopter pilot named Chief Warrant Officer Frederick L. Cristman, whose helicopter made an emergency landing and was hit by mortar fire on March 19, 1971; he is still listed as Missing In Action but in 1978 was declared “presumptive dead” by the Army.
The saddest part of Cristman’s service is that the next day–March 20, 1971–he had been scheduled to return home.
He most certainly could’ve gone had he not volunteered for what turned into a fatal mission as he was providing air support on a mission in Laos.
I often worry that Memorial Day gets too consumed with commercialism and that too many get wrapped up in the cookouts and parties. As people attended these events, I hoped it became a time to educate and inform about the true cost of freedom and the ultimate sacrifices many made to preserve it.
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