Ordinary heros

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(Host) Commentator Peter Gilbert recently had a chance encounter at an education conference that put a human face on Veteran’s Day.

(Gilbert) “What’s that medal?” I asked the man during a coffee break at the meeting in Burlington. The small bar-shaped lapel medal was almost invisible against the twill of his sports jacket. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know medals well enough to be able to identify it.”

“Oh, I did something a bit wild years ago,” he said, “and they awarded me the Distinguished Flying Cross.”

“Congratulations,” I said in astonishment,” and shook his hand respectfully. “Were you a pilot?”

No, he explained. He had been an officer in Vietnam, and he had ordered his chopper to set him down in a hot area so he could try to evacuate some American soldiers pinned down when their two choppers had been shot down.

“The bad news was that there was no way,” he said. “It was too late.” He winced. “I was lucky to get out myself. But I would do it again today. In a heartbeat.”

He remarked that he had been shot down six times in a year. Six times?! “I prefer to say ‘forced down,'” he said. “It sounds nicer.” We laughed.

Had I not been standing close to him, I wouldn’t have seen the pin, never would have asked, and never would have known. I had just met him, and knew only that he was a soft-spoken educational administrator with gray hair and an age-creased face. Now I knew more of his story.

Recently in the parking lot of a national park’s visitor’s center, I saw a car with a license plate reading 06JN44. Presumably the driver had been at D-Day, June 6th, 1944. I was thrilled and looked high and low for a man about 80 years old, probably a typical looking senior citizen tourist. His story was part of history. I was disappointed not to meet him.

Jim, a friend of ours and retired lawyer, was recuperating at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center last year. Visiting with a hospital volunteer, a man of similar age, he realized they both had flown in World War II. They talked of those days and of B-26s.

The volunteer commented that of his 35 bombing missions, one stood out – a daylight run against a railroad viaduct in Ahrweiler, Germany on December 23, 1944. Jim was stunned. He, too, had flown that mission. Jim had been a navigator in the first wave over the target. Two of the 18 planes in his wave were shot down. The volunteer had been lead pilot in the second wave a few minutes later. By the time he was over the target, 60 German fighters were waiting for them. Of the 18 planes in the second wave, only two made it back, including the volunteer’s.

Some people say that angels are all around us, but you can’t always recognize them because they look just like ordinary people. Guess it’s the same with war heroes.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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