I had only recently been in contact again with Rich, one of my buddies from Texas A&M. Probably the highlight of my friendship with him was when we went “up” one afternoon and he turned my stomach to jello with rollovers. We pretty much lost contact when he left A&M to join the Navy and I started my own family.
Rich is a survivor of Vietnam who served our country honorably. He, and the millions of others who have served our country, are heroes. I asked him to share some of his thoughts as a combat veteran… he agreed to do so. What he left unsaid in his comments, he later sent to me in an email:
“I did struggle a bit to keep it short,” he said, “and light. When there are about 50 names on the wall that you know, and some were close friends, light is somewhat difficult. They died doing what they loved; so I guess we all hope to go like that.”
Don’t just remember what they do on designated holidays… remember throughout the year. When you see a veteran, thank him or her for their service.
The Lessons & Values of Service
By Rich Powell
What Bob asked me to do initially was intended to be a short dissertation on values and lessons I gleaned from my service experience, but has expanded considerably. As I began to write, it seemed important to include some context; hopefully, I have provided enough to facilitate better understanding.
I was fortunate that I recognized early what I wanted to do — fly jets. At 14, I became active in the Civil Air Patrol cadets, began my experience in aviation, and rose in rank to eventually become the Texas Wing Cadet Group 2 Commander. The first step into the future.
Lesson: the sooner you know what you want from life, the better you’re able to pursue it.
While in high school, I actually began flight training as a civilian, and was recruited for Naval Aviation, but considered landing on a ship in the middle of the ocean absolutely crazy! I set my sights on the Air Force Academy, but, although first alternate, I failed to be appointed (lost out to an Aggie).
I joined the Aggie class of ‘66. As a “local” (I lived in College Station), I was in Squadron 15 (“Day Ducks”), but I did march with the fish Drill Team (the first Day Duck to do so). I was a squad leader, but only because I was tall.
For those who are familiar with Texas A&M, the Corps of Cadets really instilled most of the values, which were reinforced in the service as a Naval Aviator/Officer. A&M closely paralleled the service academies in codes, customs, traditions, and military protocols. The service academy’s similarities included a lowly status for freshman (“fish”… lower than whale poop on the bottom of the ocean), including strict behavior expectations, responses to questions, and even a special language. Between the two, I was exposed to the best leadership training there is anywhere.
Values: Fellowship, leadership, teamwork, trust, unity of purpose
While at A&M, I met Bob, and had the opportunity to visit with him and his family at their home in Lincoln, Nebr. I was strongly attracted to his lovely younger sister, Melinda, a delightful companion; however, dating the sister of your best friend drastically inhibits whatever lecherous tendencies you would rather succumb to. Discretion prevailed, but it was NOT easy!
Value: Honor your friendship over personal gain.
At A&M, my classroom focus suffered from several female distractions; scholastic probation followed, so when I considered that the USN Naval Aviation Cadet program would take me without a degree, the die was cast, and together with my brother Tom, off I went to Navy boot camp, where I applied and was selected for NAVCAD — I was going to fly jets after all. Thus I started the arduous process to become a “tailhooker.” Tom became a Hospital Corpsman, served with the USMC in Vietnam, collecting six purple hearts (fortunately, neither I nor any of my other brothers got any).
Lesson: Follow your dream, but change the path as necessary.
Largely because of a strong commitment to succeed, I received numerous performance awards during my early years, probably resulting to some extent in the assignment to the A-7 Corsair II, a new single-seat light attack aircraft, just joining the Navy inventory (no operational squadrons when I got the assignment). Mixed emotions, because my first choice was to fly F-4 Phantoms — a fighter aircraft. I was to learn throughout the rest of my career how fortunate I was to get my “second choice.”
Values: Hard work, perseverance, good study habits, commitment to a goal.
Again, fortune smiled on me, I was assigned to the west coast, so I went to Lemoore, Calif. to begin transition training, where I met (and later married Sandra), and was eventually assigned to VA-27, a newly commissioned A-7 squadron. I made two combat cruises with them; while many of my close friends and colleagues were lost to combat action, VA-27 was the only squadron embarked that didn’t lose any aircrew (several aircraft, but we recovered the crew). Sadly, roommates from both cruises were lost in subsequent tours. The bright spot was that my brother Bill joined VA-97, our sister squadron, and I married Sandra between cruises (we celebrated 41 years last February). Seeing Bill on the flight deck after returning from a combat sortie was a welcome sight that was, and is, special for both of us.
Lessons: Mission planning, preparation, execution, teamwork, (flight) discipline, supreme confidence in abilities (if you don’t think you can do it, you’re absolutely RIGHT)
The most sobering reality of my service was the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) — the nuclear war plan. Although daily involved in conventional ordnance delivery, we were still part of the plan, and that mission involved comprehensive threat assessment, meticulous preparation and planning in route selection, target acquisition and attack, detailed checklists for weapons settings and loading onto the aircraft (included the 2-man rule throughout — until launch, then I was on my own). Consider how remarkable it is to go deep down into the ship, stand among hundreds of actual nuclear bombs, and put in the settings on the very weapon you might carry off the ship armed if the worst was to happen. Regular practice, involving dummy weapons, included every aspect of the actual wartime launch, including loading, launch timing, low-level cross-country run-in to meet a specific target time, then divert to a land base for grading and evaluation of how we did.
Lesson: Practice like it’s real - Pray that it never happens
My next assignment was as an Advanced Jet Training Flight Instructor, Kingsville, Texas, allowing regular visits home, especially during football season. While there, my youngest brother Lee joined the USN, got assigned to my squadron after A-school, so I promptly got him through the “hoops” to fly backseat, and he joined me on numerous hops. By that time Tom was in Aviation Physiology, training USMC pilots, so I received special permission to fly him in the back seat of the TA-4J — a wonderful treat for us both.
Lesson: Sharing your passion with those you love is a special privilege.
Having had my fill of dodging Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAM) & AAA, I opted for a Mediterranean (Med) cruise for my next assignment, and was ordered to VA-82, east coast, USS America (European ports, nobody shootin’ at your airplane… usually), and as a bonus, the group was leaving so that I couldn’t join them until they returned from the cruise — I would have a long time before I went to sea again.
Unfortunately the Vietnam war heated up again, so they were redirected to WESTPAC; but I still wasn’t to join them until they returned. My plans were modified when VA-86, the sister squadron, lost so many aircraft and aircrew (including one who had been my next door neighbor in K-ville), that I became a “Must-pump,” given an A-7 to TRANSPAC from Jacksonville, Fla. to join them in the Philippines between line periods. I got there in time to drop mines in Hai Phong harbor, participate in Linebacker II, with the many-plane B-52 strikes against Hanoi/Hai Phong and what we called “Route Pack 6.” Exciting times; SAMs flying, AAA barrages, aircraft falling in flames — one close enough that I thought it was my wingman (BTW, a B-52 makes a big, long fireball from 30,000 feet) — challenging, occasionally very scary, but that’s what we do… Oh, and we get to land on the carrier at night — now that’s really exciting!
Lesson: I don’t know, only the good die young… perhaps I was never in any real danger?
The POWs were coming home, and so were we, I finished with about 300 combat and combat support missions (24 Strike/Flight Air Medals). I became a “shellback” crossing the Equator (we went around the Cape of Good Hope), and flew back into Jacksonville on a westbound heading (same as when I left… around the world). I finally got my Med cruise aboard the USS Nimitz, first of her class nuclear attack aircraft carrier (CVAN, later CVN). Missions were a lot more uneventful, but that was not a bad thing for me. The “Nuggets” (new guys) were impressed with the medals and green ink in the log books (combat sorties are entered in green ink… I had 3 with green ink), but I still had to buy my own drinks. J
I finished my degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla., completed 20 years of Naval service in foreign shore (Japan) and afloat staffs, as well as additional duty as A-7 Instructor, imparting my combat experience to those tailhookers who would fly in Lebanon, Grenada, and other conflicts. I ended up flying all the USN models of the A-7, including some “C” models as single seat, and later as 2-seaters (same aircraft, modified).
Lesson: Flying tactical jets is the most fun you can have with your clothes on; even getting shot at is worth it, if you can land aboard the carrier when you come home. (Over 600 total “traps,” 300 at night.)
Final Lesson: If you love what you do — revel in it completely. I did not fully appreciate the opportunity I had when I was actually living it; all my fellow tailhookers agree, we were blessed beyond belief to have done it.