Because of the Brave

The Land of the Free Because of the Brave

As it evolved from its original intent, Decoration Day, to honor those lost in the Civil War, Memorial Day is a way to honor all those who died in all wars in service to our country. But when I think about it, it means so much more. It brings up memories not only of those we lost but those we didn’t. A solemn day. A Remembrance Day. A day of memories.

I was reading an article about Tidal Wave, the 1943 attack on the Romanian oil fields. It reminded me of a man I flew with in Vietnam. He was one of the survivors of that disastrous, ill-conceived raid that cost 308 lives and captured or interned 190 more. Of the 177 aircraft that took off that day, only 88 returned. When I knew him in 1972, LtC Blaine Rianda was sent to Vietnam for the last year of his career. But rather than complain, he still chose to fly his daily rotation. Maybe he thought that after Ploesti, there was little he hadn’t seen. He was a man who quietly earned our respect.

I remember too, Capt David E Pannabecker. He was an HH-53 pilot of the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS). In his off time, Dave took care of Buffy, a Malaysian Sun Bear that was the ARRS mascot that eventually ended up in the St. Louis Zoo. A great, fun-loving guy whose life ended too quickly on March 27, 1972, when he was shot down by a 37mm anti-aircraft gun in the tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. We spent his last night rolling dice before that fateful morning, which is why I don’t play dice anymore.

It’s also about the hundreds of men and women I flew with over the course of my 25 years. Their ups and downs. Their trip-ups and their successes. Their dreams. I got to be a small part of it all. And I’ll never forget the one thing they had in common—a brotherhood of the air. And all had pride in themselves, their units, and the greatness of America. Over the course of every war our men and women are sent by those who never served. But they stay the course, trust in each other, and do what they were sent to do.

And if you ask combat vets for their stories, they probably won’t go into much. My dad didn’t. He fought in three wars—WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He was on the ground in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. He only gave me one piece of advice when I left for Vietnam—that if we were being shot at, don’t worry about the black smoke, as those shells have already exploded. That and a small Bible. He didn’t talk to me about other “stuff” until shortly before he died. I think a lot of vets are like that. So don’t get upset if you ask and they don’t tell. Sometimes it’s too painful for them. Something they don’t want to remember. And sometimes you just wouldn’t understand.

I’m sure when they first arrived in theater, no matter how many times they had deployed before, their braggadocio was perhaps tinged with some amount of fear in the unknown. This is normal. But then the excitement and uneasiness turn into reality. The reality is that this may be the final day you stand upon the earth. However, I’m guessing that for all it finally became just another day because even if you worried, there was nothing you could do to change it. So you did your job. For you, and for your brothers and sisters. And in the quiet times you thought of home.

But there’s another group that’s often forgotten. The families of those who didn’t return. They are also the real honorees. To have a son or daughter, sister or brother, wife or husband who will never return leaves an unimaginable void. I have never felt that, but I’ve seen it. The eyes. The grief. The shock when you knock on their door in full uniform. These are the ones we must honor along with those we lost in war or peace. Their loved ones are in God’s care. They remain in ours.

So on this Memorial Day as you start summer’s beginning, remember those who were once like you. And say a small prayer of thanks that you live in the land of the free because of the brave.

Colonel Arthur Cole, USAF, Ret., served 25 years. After his military retirement in 1995, he flew 16 years for a major airline from which he retired in 2013

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