Retired Army Lt. Col. Tom Gunn, a decorated Vietnam War helicopter pilot, spoke Monday in Quitman about duty and sacrifice and some of the men with whom he served many years ago in Southeast Asia.
His Memorial Day address came on the lawn of the Wood County Courthouse in Quitman before a solemn crowd of about 125. Gunn said he’s observed that people sometimes fail to make the distinction between Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
Veterans Day, he noted, is a time to pay tribute to those who served and survived war, whereas Memorial Day is to honor those veterans who did not survive. Throughout the nation’s history, an estimated 1.39 million Americans have lost their lives in war.
“As a combat veteran, I feel quite comfortable to speak for the living survivors,” said Gunn. “I don’t feel so comfortable speaking for those who died in the line of duty. But since they can’t speak for themselves, I’ll try my best to be a voice for them today, because we’re here to honor them.”
Gunn served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam from August 1969 to January 1971. He described being “shot at, shot up, shot down and shot.” Getting killed is something every serviceman contemplates after getting a firsthand look at the carnage of battle, he noted.
He relayed a story about his first day of flight training at Fort Walters in Texas. The commander walked in and the men stood at attention.
“Gentlemen, be at ease,” he told the would-be pilots. “But before you sit down, I want to ask you to turn and introduce yourselves and shake hands with the man on your right and on your left.”
The men did as they were told, and the commander continued.
“Gentleman, here’s the plan. Over the next several months you’ll undergo some of the most intensive flight training anywhere. Sometime next summer you’ll graduate, get your aviator wings, take (leave) and then you’ll all go to Vietnam to fly helicopters for a year. Then at the end of that year, one of those two men you just shook hands with will be dead. And if not one of them, it’ll be you. Because right now, one out of every three helicopter pilots we send to Vietnam dies there.”
Said Gunn: “Even though being a pilot was strictly voluntary, and we had been told in no uncertain terms that maybe a third of us would be killed in the upcoming months, not a single one opted to withdraw from the course. Not a single one voluntarily withdrew and shrank away from our commitments and our duty.”
Gunn told several heart-wrenching stories about men he knew who were killed in Vietnam. The phrase often used was they were “killed in the line of duty.”
For those men, they would want the emphasis to be on the word “duty,” Gunn said. “That’s what they’d want to you to remember this Memorial Day.”