Harold Cochran, Russell Whitlow and Marcell Martin probably don’t know one another, but they share a common bond.
All served in the military, and they joined other veterans and attendees at the University of Tennessee at Martin’s 13th annual Memorial Day Commemoration Friday morning at the Hall-Moody Administration Building entrance.
Mike Davis, retired director of the university’s physical plant and a Vietnam War veteran, was the program speaker.
Cochran, UT Martin senior broadcast engineer from Troy, served a combined eight years in the U.S. Air Force and Tennessee Air National Guard. A cousin in attendance served in the military during Desert Storm and his father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
Cochran, who served during peacetime, is proud of his and his family’s military service.
“I’m very honored to have served even though it was during no conflict,” he said, adding that the university honoring veterans “means a whole lot.”
Whitlow, of Greenfield, served more than 14 years in the Marine Corps and completed three tours of duty in Iraq before being medically retired. Now a UT Martin accounting major, he’s the treasurer for the Skyhawk Veterans Association, a university organization dedicated to serving students with military service. He was pleased to see the number of the people who came to the event.
“I see a lot of veterans out here today, and I see a lot of non-veterans out here just showing that support and that dedication to the local veterans in the area,” Whitlow said.
A member of the Navy from 1966-69, Davis shared his experiences as a 20-year-old sailor serving on the hospital ship USS Sanctuary (AH-17) in 1968 a few hundred yards off the coast of Vietnam.
“We were the front line for the helicopters of both the Marine Corps and the Army to bring the casualties from the battlefields,” he told the audience. “As we tended to that ship and tended to the hospital and tended to those helicopters as they came and went, we watched and heard much of the grimness of war.”
Davis recalled a photo from the war that still makes him pause and think. In the photo, Davis is pictured “dressed in an asbestos suit from head to toe sitting leisurely atop of cases and cases of natural glow embalming fluid.” He saw life and death as the wounded and deceased were brought to the ship, while facing the personal dangers inherent in an active war zone.
“Our clients, or our customers so to speak along the way, were the helicopter pilots of both the Army and the Marine Corps as they brought us the wounded and the dead from the battlefields,” he said. “We’d made a huge sign and erected it above the flight deck for the helicopter pilots to see. That sign boldly stated, ‘You find ’em, and we bind ’em. Open 24 hours a day,’” he said as his voice cracked with emotion.
“And those helicopters and the constant thud of those rotors could be heard day and night, almost constantly,” Davis added. “And I still remember those helicopters. I remember the bullet holes and their undercarriages. I remember the flat tires that they sat on. I remember the smell and the sight of their leaky fuel systems.
“And I remember the stretchers, I remember the gurneys, I remember the blood and I remember the body bags. But I remember no faces.”
He again emphasized the tragedy of war but saw war as “yet so essential to maintain our freedom and to maintain our way of life.”
Davis paused during his comments and asked the audience for a minute of prayer and silence in remembrance of fallen veterans and followed by thanking all U.S. military for their service, paying special attention to aging World War II veterans.
“We must thank them for that great accomplishment that they made in that war and the part that they played in winning that war,” he said of World War II veterans. “We must show appreciation and give gratitude for as long as we can.”
Davis closed by telling of an annual Veterans Day event at Martin Middle School during which faculty, staff and students honor military veterans. He described a “warm and fuzzy feeling” when he sees the children’s respect and admiration for those who have served in the military.
“Today I’d like to challenge each of you to find a veteran and find a way to give that veteran that same warm and fuzzy feeling,” he said.
Marcell Martin, a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient who lives in Martin, identified closely with Davis’ comments. Martin served 39 months in Vietnam, was wounded Sept. 2, 1967, and retired from the military following four years in the Marine Corps and 16 years in the Army.
“I just love military. I love veterans. I do,” an emotional Martin said, adding, “It just means so much that people would take time to honor the veterans. It just means so much to me.”
Maj. Christopher McDaniel, UT Martin assistant professor of military science, served as master of ceremonies and recognized Gold Star families who have lost loved ones in war and military veterans in attendance. UT Martin Provost Jerald Ogg, retired U.S. Air Force JAG Corps colonel, welcomed the crowd and noted that the university holds many special ceremonies but none more important than this event.
“Graduations come to mind, but I don’t know of any ceremony that we do on this campus that’s any more special than this one,” Ogg said.
Published in The Messenger 5.27.13