What Veterans Day Means to Me

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November 11, 2016 Blog
What Veterans Day Means to Me

Through discussions I’ve had with medical staff at the Veteran’s Administration I learned that many veterans are not comfortable shining the light upon themselves. Whatever a veteran’s sacrifice, he or she is humbled by the other veterans who have made even greater sacrifices. During Veteran’s Day public appreciation exists but contrasts with a very personal experience that many veterans tend to harbor. For many, individual recognition is uncomfortable. In general, the appreciation for veterans offered on Veterans Day is valued and appreciated by veterans.

Veteran’s Day first reminds me of my father who passed away on July 4th, 2014. He served in WWII, saw action and abandoned his sinking ship. He rarely referred to his sacrifices. For as long as I can remember, my dad proudly wore a Navy Veteran’s ball cap. He was a very patriotic American Sailor who loved his country. Veterans seem to possess a silent, veiled pride without too much fanfare. On Veteran’s Day, I envision my dad with a huge smile, a thumb’s up and proudly wearing his worn out Navy Veteran’s ball cap.

Thinking about the significance of Veteran’s Day causes me to remember the faces and character of close friends who lost their lives performing their military duties. While you never knew these veterans that I will describe, I would guess each of you know veterans who have contributed to the quality of your lives.

  • On Veteran’s Day I remember Neal Carlock who was a real character and veteran from Brooklyn. While training at Coronado, California I introduced Neal to a girlfriend, Joyce, who was a Navy Nurse. Neal married Joyce and several years later Neal crashed an F-14 Tomcat in two separate incidents during a three-year period and only survived the first. The first accident occurred over the Mojave Desert while Neal’s jet was dogfighting with another F-14; the other F-14 aircraft blasted so close to Neal’s F-14 that both of his engines flamed out. Neither engine could be restarted. Eerily similar to the accident filmed in the movie Top Gun, the Tomcat entered an unrecoverable flat spin. While Neal was recovering from the three fractures above his knee from the force of the ejection, he was asked by Navy officials why he ejected and wittily replied, “I ran out of airspeed, altitude and ideas.” As a protocol, that same day Neal’s mother received a phone call from the Navy officially reporting his accident. Neal’s younger brother overheard the call and figured something significant had happened. Neal’s brother asked his mother, “Who called Mom?” and she replied, “the Navy informed me that your brother Neal has been in an aircraft accident.” Without blinking, Neal’s brother immediately inquired, “Can I have Neal’s leather flight jacket and stereo?” The whole family seemed to thrive on humor. Neal’s last flight and last day on earth ended due to both of his F-14’s engines stuck in Zone 5 afterburner resulting in Mach plus airspeeds. To compound the problem, the weather conditions that evening caused both aviators to experience disorientation or severe vertigo. Neal ejected too late as the jet slammed into Virginia’s Dismal Swamp at a speed exceeding 600mph. Joyce became widowed and his three children were left without a father.
  • On Veteran’s Day I remember a Navy roommate who was temporarily stationed with me in Maine prior to going to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. John Downer was from South Dakota and always had a bright smile on his face. He was a ginger too. One night after the Officer’s Club closed, we both jumped into our cars, John actually had an old red van with yellow shag carpet. As we planned, we sped through the parking lot aiming toward each other’s vehicle with the intention of clipping each other’s side mirrors. Once his right mirror and my right mirror collided, we realized of all of our stupid ideas this idea was probably the dumbest. We knew enough to reduce the risk of our activities by switching to safer idiocies. The next crazy endeavor occurred during parties at friends’ apartment complexes. We discovered cheap thrills entertaining the party crowd by tumbling in a clothes dryer at the complex’s laundry room. A dryer cycle back then was about a dime. We tumbled in the clothes dryer until it became boring. Smiling, John was one of the happiest persons I have met, but unfortunately his bride became a widow and the unborn baby would never experience the smile and greatness of her father. He crashed his Corsair during a high-speed low-level flight.
  • On Veterans Day I remember a good friend of mine who was selected to join the Navy Blue Angels. Lieutenant Commander Mike Gershon was a native Floridian and experienced a horrific end due to his mid-air collision with another A-4 Skyhawk over Niagara Falls preceding an airshow near Buffalo, New York. The other pilot ejected with injuries, but Mike was not so fortunate. Mike was one of the kindest persons I have met. During flight school Mike was ranked as the number one pilot and considered by many as a genuinely kind officer. During our flight training phase, I remember how Mike took Gary Dunn, another flight student, under his wing. Gary was struggling to satisfactorily meet flight school standards. Mike could have hung out at Pensacola Beach during his weekends, but decided to spend weekends helping Gary make it through flight school. Mike grew up without a father, who had also been a Navy Pilot. His Dad perished during the Vietnam War. After Mike’s fatal collision in Niagara Falls, his new bride of a year and baby girl were left alone, coping without Mike.

The list goes on. Each of these men were special in their own way and left their mark on many. I believe this Veteran’s Day they are looking down upon us, I believe Veterans greatly appreciate the thoughtfulness of others toward them on Veteran’s Day.
There are many more. You likely know veterans too and could similarly reflect upon their individual merits as I have shared about Neal, John, Mike and my Dad. These men were four amongst the many veterans we remember on Veteran’s Day each year.
In closing, I would like to leave you with this quote from Ronald Reagan:

“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”

While my thoughts might principally revolve around some old-timers, I also think of my daughter-in-law from North Dakota who serves as a Physician’s Assistant and Captain with the Army National Guard. Shannon Bertsche is one of many who serve us today. While the memories of those who have served is significant and valued, I appreciate as much those who serve today and those who will serve tomorrow. The significance of Veteran’s Day’s unleashes within me a sense of gratitude. It’s always about the individual and their greatness.

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