I have a childhood friend, John W. Cook, whose name will be emblazoned forever on a granite wall in Washington, D.C. John was the best friend of my oldest brother and they were thick as thieves growing up in Southern California. John probably spent as much time at my house as he did at his own.
In 1967, John had a decision to make. He knew there was a high likelihood that he would be drafted, even if he was a full-time college student. He also very badly wanted to fly. While in school, he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol and flew on civil rescue missions frequently. It didn’t hurt that his dad held a flight endurance record or two, either. So, he made the decision to take the Army on his own terms and enlisted. He was given his opportunity for his “dream job” and was chosen for helicopter flight school.
After graduation, he was promptly shipped off to Vietnam. On February 19, 1967, while on a mission to pick up a Special Forces team in Laos, John’s helicopter was shot down by an enemy RPG. He survived the crash and was even medevaced out only to die nine days later in a hospital in Japan. John was the co-pilot of the aircraft. At his death, John was awarded the Purple Heart to go with his Air Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal. He was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. His crewman, Sgt. Fred Zabitosky, was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing John and his pilot from the burning aircraft during intense hostile fire.
Forty-six years later, on Memorial Day, this is who I think of.
On Monday I will be doing what I hope many of you will do: visiting a local cemetery for one of the many Memorial Day ceremonies held throughout the county. It is a small price to pay, to honor what they have given in life. So, start your Memorial Day not with a hotdog bun in hand, but with a note of gratitude in your heart for Chief Warrant Officer John W. Cook Jr. or one of your loved ones who might have died in conflict, serving their country. It is true that we continue to live in the greatest country in the world thanks to the sacrifice of millions of men and women who continue to give their lives in the name of freedom and who will never know another summer with their friends.
It has been my privilege to serve this great Country in the armed forces during time of conflict. My two older brothers served in the same era and my mother and father served during World War II. Even a younger brother has served in the Naval Reserves. I have one close friend’s name etched on Section 42E Line 003 of the National Vietnam War Memorial, which I have touched during my only trip to Washington D.C. I wear a daily reminder of his friendship.
So, it should come as no surprise that Veterans Day is very special to me. While Memorial Day is a rememberance of our fallen, Veterans Day remembers the sacrifice of the living. In my time of war, veterans and active duty members of the Armed Forces were not particularly popular or welcome in some circles. I remember going home on leave after boot camp, proudly wearing my dress blues. No one sat next to me on the bus, no one would sit next to me at the bus stop lunch counters I was stared at and tolerated but rarely spoken to. It was the last time I wore my uniform off base.
Years later President Ronald Reagan, while tearing down the Wall between East and West Berlin, managed to reignite patriotism among the people. It became fashionable to fly our flag everyday, not just on holidays. And he once again made me proud, through his speech and actions, to be a veteran. And I realized that it truly was a privilege to serve my Country.
I have been a member of various posts of The American Legion, including our own Post 227, for more than 25 years. Six years ago, I helped found the American Legion Riders in California. I surround myself with fellow veterans who think nothing of the fact they once wrote a blank check to the people of the United States of America, payable up to and including their life. It has made us members of a special brotherhood with, at times, a costly membership fee we have been honored to pay.
Regardless of our stance on the war, the American People are immensely proud of our soldiers. We celebrate when they go off to war. We celebrate the the end of war and cheer the men and women serving there when they come home.. But, keep in mind that we had and continue to have, Armed Forces stationed around the world in the Korean DMZ, Japan, the Middle East and Europe, to name a few places. These warriors are the peacekeepers that insure yours and my freedom, from lonely outposts far from family and friends.
So, today, please take a moment to stop and thank your Higher Power for the veterans of our Country who have worked to preserve the freedom you enjoy today. And, if you meet one on the street, thank him or her for their service and say, “Welcome home.”