Memorial Dedication Remarks

Hurlburt Field Air Park,  23 September 2000

Dr. Charles Jones, Butterfly 44


To our mothers and daddies, wives and widows, and these boys and girls, sons and daughters, and family members of our fallen comrades; Colonel Barnett and ranking military members; fellow Forward Air Controllers and good families; citizens and dignitaries from the nearby towns and communities; Special Operations members, and others: "Good morning! This is a glorious day the Lord hath made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it!" There are a number of those who did send regrets that they could not join us here on this historical occasion. Let me read a message from General Peter J. Schoomaker, Commander in Chief, United States Special Operations Command. He says "Thank you for the invitation to attend the dedication of the FAC memorial on September 23. Our nation is forever indebted to the 219 FACs who made the supreme sacrifice, and the memorial at Hurlburt Field Airpark is a fitting tribute to them. I very much regret that I am unable to accept because of a previous commitment. However, I will be there in spirit. Please pass my warmest regards to all in attendance. Best wishes to all." (Signed, Peter J. Schoomaker)

We are gathered to dedicate a monument and pay tribute to 219 Forward Air Controllers who made the supreme sacrifice in the Vietnam War in our nation’s service. We do assemble here in their honor and memory. The faithful sun has during the last twenty or thirty years since their deaths, swung many times over this beautiful place, the place of their training, and over the homes they left behind, and over the fields of battle where they died. For some of us, our lips, our hands and our footsteps each day grow less steady. Our shadows grow long. Therefore, forward air controllers from around the world have joined us with this noble and singular purpose: to remember them by placing their names on this monument. We think it is proper and fitting to do so.

Some one hundred and fifty years ago, the President of this land joined an assembly on the grassy hills of Gettysburg; slopes recently wetted with the blood of dying soldiers. That gathering was for purposes not unlike ours today. Abraham Lincoln arose and said "We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. These brave men as they struggled, consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract!" With a similar recognition of our great disabilities along these very lines, we do show our deep respect and the eternal gratitude of our nation as we commemorate their names today.

Let us be reminded of the words read from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8: "To every thing there is a season; and a time for every purpose under the sun: A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to pluck up that which is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal, a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep and mourn, and a time to laugh. A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing. There is a time to get, and a time to let go. A time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak out. There is a time to love and a time to hate. There is a time of war and a time of peace!" For our purposes this morning, may we add: "There is a time to forget, and there is a time to remember!"

We sometimes sing in our homes and houses of worship the song "Precious memories, how they linger, how they ever flood our souls! In the stillness, as at midnight, precious sacred scenes unfold! Precious memories! Lasting memories fly across the passing years! And the old scenes with our comrades, in fond memories appear! Precious memories, like unseen angels, sent from somewhere to our souls, how they linger ever near us, as the sacred past unfolds!" What we remember as we today reflect on the selfless sacrifices of our fallen patriots depends on so many things! Times and places, names and faces… As a father or a mother, we would remember the days of childhood of our boys, an energetic young teenager, the maturing young man and citizen, the times when he first began to manifest an awareness of the timeless principles of "Duty, Honor and Country!" The sad joy mixed with huge pride as he marched off to serve his country as a pilot in the Air Force. That great pride then, and even now!

As wives, we would remember the loving times, and the trying times balanced with the times of great joy and intimacy. The happiness at the birth of our own babies and boys and girls, the jocular face, the security of his touches and love. The steady assurance that all will be OK, as he leaves again and again on the missions of his duty, and even as he set off to a strange place called Vietnam to fight, and as became the sad case, to die! His devotion, especially to his calling, his commitment to all he loved, his nation. The boys and girls, sons and daughters, remember the swelling pride that daddy is a pilot! His care for our simple but great concerns of life, the touch of his hands, sitting on his lap, our almost arrogant, and then sometimes defensive boast to our classmates that "Daddy is gone to fight in the war in Vietnam."

Oh, yes! We as family members remember the dreaded sight of the Air Force officer as he slowly treads toward our door with that saddest of all news, or reading from the trembling telegram "We deeply regret to inform you that your daddy, your husband, your son has been killed in action!"

For those of us who flew and trained, and lived and laughed, and loved and wept with them, we find our own hearts flooded with memories of our friends: times and places, names and faces! We remember training here at Hurlburt. Learning to fly these wonderful but pesky machines that became a part of our very beings, seeing them now appropriately stationed as though still teammates, friends, and guardians by this beautiful monument bearing their names. Near here sweating and toiling, learning that particular art of war called forward air control! Taking to the skies here, flying over the nearby ranges, and at Holly Field. Passing from time to time through this very place, this now very meaningful Airpark. Here beneath the wings of these aircraft and these tall piney trees as they now stand as your sentinels, as they cast their gentle shades over your engraved names. Times and places, names and faces!

And we remember going off with you to those distant lands of Asia, war-torn lands, there experiencing different and strange sights, customs and smells. The oily, hydraulic fluid odors of our machines, the soiled canvas smells of these airplanes, smells of strange foods being prepared, smells of the burning latrine pits, the pungent smells of our own unwashed bodies after days or hours of battle. Remembering the lovely fragrance of our wives’ perfume on the letters from home. We remember the acrid, smoky odors of the fighting. And oh, the unforgettable strong smells of death and dying.

We remember you as we unveil our memories and re-live the sounds of battle, the spackling punctuation of the rounds as they pierce our airplanes, the adrenaline-pumping sounds of the gunfire from below, the mechanical voices, discovered to be our own, heard on uniform and victor as these well-controlled voices mask the surges of our energy, and our daring to stay alive, while disposing ourselves as American fighting men! The dreadful sound of the beeper as it spells out the fearful word that one of us has fallen. The silent but thundering sounds of our own hearts pounding out the urging message of "Duty, Honor and Country!"

We do remember the barracks days, days and times in our hootches. Ribald if not raucous behaviors and songs, sounding so wonderful then as we loudly joined in our off-key tenors! Our cots and bunks in some mildewed hut far away. The years-ago midnight sounding of taps near our training barracks:

"Day is done, gone the sun, from the fields, from the hills from the sky. Do not fear. God is near! Day is done." And so clearly today with our memory’s ear, we hear again those hauntingly sad notes, as taps sang that unforgettable song of sadness over your flag-draped coffins or by your gravesites. Times and places, names and faces! Oh! We remember the flying days. The bobbing, bounding feel as the airplane lopes into takeoff speed. The exhilaration of flight as the nose is rotated and according to the poets, we would "break the surly bonds of earth," as we went "off into the wild blue yonder, climbing up toward the sun!" The musing, the pondering, even thoughts of home as we drone toward the battle. The undertowing knowledge of the deadly nature of our work. Longing for our homes. Knowledge that we like you this day may "reach out and touch the face of God." Diving and zooming, swerving and climbing, hearing our own words of our work, guiding, warning, directing our brave fighting brothers into our own deadly predicaments, there separating poetry from reality, as the words of our National Anthem speaks of "the bombs bursting in air, the rockets’ red glare!" And we this moment, this day, tearfully remember the sadness we felt as a comrade met us, and with that certain look and trembling touch on the shoulder, told us that you didn’t come home!

We especially remember with great pride, yet deep sadness, the heroic deeds of our brother Hilliard Wilbanks. We remember the lasting saga of him deliberately flying himself between a large and determined enemy and his friends on the ground, placing himself in great danger's way for others, firing his personal weapon through a cockpit window. How he repeatedly exposed himself to death in order to shield others from his eventual same fate. In so doing he died a hero's death!

And we so proudly recall the courageous deeds of our brave comrade Steven Bennett who engaged a superior enemy force with the limited weaponry of his OV-10 Bronco aircraft. Receiving hits from a surface to air missile, he directed ejection from his crippled airplane, only to discover that his fellow flier's chute was shredded. Steve would not eject to save himself to leave his friend to die. Instead he chose to remain at the controls in a ditching attempt in order to save a friend. His efforts succeeded in saving the companion's life. Steve gave his own. There is a military motto used by certain brave Air Force rescue units: "That others may live." Steve and Willard captured that noble commitment, and once again gave evidence and faith to that noble principle, and to the very source from which it came, God's Word. A Holy Scripture states "Greater love hath no man than would lay down his life for his friends." There certainly must accrue a special eternal reward for the likes of these, our brave FAC brothers!

And our concerns remain deep for two of our fallen brothers whose fates or deaths remain unaccounted for. Lee Harley and his back-seater Andy Guillet were shot down in Laos in 1966 along a heavily defended road into North Vietnam. Their O-1 Bird Dog aircraft was seen impacting the battleground near a road. Beepers were heard from the site, and toward a nearby village. No evidence has ever been unearthed by teams to establish their fate. If these courageous brothers have indeed passed through the dark door of death, we pray their passage was without pain. If they were captured and suffered at the hands of evil men, we pray that any pain and anguish will redound to their credit as they fly to the bosom of a merciful God!

Above all other memories must remain the lasting, enduring lessons your heroic sacrifices reteach us all: "Freedom is not free!" Your examples reassure to us the compelling truth that the maintenance and security of liberty and freedom, the unfettered pursuit of happiness, and the dignity of free men, indeed come with great costs, and that these are worth much more than my mere life!

We see many family members of these heroic fallen FACs here today. You honor and inspire us with your own special kind of bravery and courage. In just a moment, after the roll call of our fallen brothers, we will see you humbly place a wreath in their memories. Doris Maitland, beloved sister of MIA Andy Guillet; and Guida Harley Schweitzer, daughter of MIA Lee Harley, will commemorate these MIA FAC brothers. We shall be respectfully humble as Angela Bennett, daughter of Steve Bennett; and Rosemary Wilbanks, widow of Hillard Wilbanks, place a wreath in tribute to Medal of Honor recipients, our FAC brothers Hillard and Steve. We respectfully pay tribute to each of our 219 fallen brothers as Janet Silvester, sister of FAC Richard N. Christy; and Jeff Briggs, son of FAC Frank H. Briggs, reverently place a wreath in their names at the face of this beautiful stone.

Dear friends will you all indulge me for a moment of very personal reflection? I was a "Butterfly" FAC during my second FAC tour to the Southeast Asian War. I flew with my comrades from mountaintop to mountaintop, from STOL strip to village strips in the secret "war that wasn't" in Laos. Our brave "big-boy" jet warriors over North Vietnam were instructed to come towards our fighting area, or to head to the open seas, if it became necessary to punch out due to battle damage. It was likely that our faithful Hmong guerrillas or some of us in civilian clothes, flying in STOL Pilatus PC-6 Porters, or Air America choppers could get to them perhaps faster than the Jolly Greens and the strong Skyraider A-1s. This was indeed the case on one fateful day etched in my memory. A fine young pilot flying his crippled jet from over Hanoi had to eject in our area. Fortunately a helicopter managed to extricate this wounded flier. An Air America C-123 landed on a hillside clay runway in northeast Laos which could accommodate its use. We saw the use of this airplane to be the fastest way to fly him a considerable distance to an American hospital in Korat, Thailand. I shall not forget the sight of that valiant young American who had answered his country's call, lying on that rude and simple battlefield canvas litter, which was now being strapped down to the floor for the flight. The crudest of arrangements brought into the most noble of uses, the care of America's bravest and best! His young face was tired and pained. It was grimy with dirt and blood, save two streaks down his cheeks, washed clean by his tears, not tears of cowardice or fear, but tears of thanksgiving at being alive! I felt a tug on my smelly boots, and I knelt down beside him. His trembling but strong hand clasped mine. Through his tears he said "Sir, I want to thank you for saving my life!" Those words burned themselves into my memory!

Oh, America! Oh Americans! Take time, take occasion to visit the green hillside cemeteries across our land! Slowly walk between the white crosses, the stars of David, the bronze plates marking the graves of America's fallen soldiers. Come here to this lovely place. Come to this beautiful monument. And as your trembling fingertips touch the engraved names of these, our own revered dead, may your lips sincerely and quietly whisper this grateful prayer: "Sirs! I thank you for saving our Nation!"

I wish to close these humble remarks as with a prayer. I think it appropriate to use the words of a poem, borrowed words from the stanzas of our own stirring National Anthem.

"And thus be it ever, that free men shall stand between their loved homes and war's desolation! Blessed with victory and peace, may this Heaven-rescued land, praise the Power that has made and preserved us a Nation! And when conquer we must, and our cause it is just, may this be our motto: in God is our trust! Then, the Star-Spangled Banner forever shall wave, over the land of the free, and the home of the brave!"

Amen! Amen!

LAOS 1966 (BUTTERFLY 44 & 33)