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PHOTO: David Kemna and Jay Brickell honor the 239th birthday of the Marine Corp
POPLAR BLUFF – David Kemna of Fort Atkinson Wisconsin and Jay Brickell of Poplar Bluff held a reunion over the weekend to reminisce about their friendship that began in flight school in Florida, their service in the Vietnam War and to honor the 239th birthday of their Marine Corp.
We met up at Colton’s Steakhouse. On the table lay Jay’s dress uniform cover (the military term for hat) and an appropriately-decorated Marine Corp birthday cake.
The friends met at the Naval Air Station flight school in Pensacola Florida in 1964. Both men had volunteered for service while in college. Upon receiving a whole range of flight instruction, both men were selected to be helicopter pilots. They were trained to fly the Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw. It was the height of the Vietnam War.
David and his wife, Alice, had a 2-year-old son named Paul. When David’s orders came in for deployment to Vietnam, Alice left their home in Illinois with their little boy to live with her parents in New York until David’s return.
David would spend his 25th and 26th birthday in Vietnam during his 13-month deployment. He recalled flying World Airways to Okinawa where he’d be processed for two days before flying out to Da Nang.
“On the commercial flight there were many Marines and the atmosphere was jovial,” he said. “There was lots of joking.
“But once we boarded the C-130 for Vietnam it wasn’t jovial. No jokes…no jokes.”
It was June and sickeningly hot. David remembered feeling as if a clock started ticking off the moments of what he knew was going to be a grueling 13 months away from everything he knew back home.
As a pilot of the H-34 helicopter, David’s job was to transport troops into difficult locations, deliver supplies and execute medical evacuations. The flights were always risky and the brutal images of war were a constant reality. David remembered missions where he witnessed aircraft going down around him either from enemy fire or mechanical failure.
Thirteen months in Vietnam was “very intense and seemed like an endless deal” at times. David recalled, “The most rewarding part of being in the war was being able to pull somebody out in a medevac. If you could think that you saved somebody and got them to the field hospital… it made it worthwhile.”
He noted that flying medevac was always dangerous and many didn’t like to fly those missions because there was a lot of firing going on and the aircraft was often fired upon. But he felt it was important to keep the reward in mind through all of it as the months wore on. “If I thought I could …save somebody’s life; it was rewarding,” said David.
Jay Brickell was 26 when he deployed to Vietnam. He left behind his wife, Ruth Ann, and their 6-month-old daughter, Geri.
Brickell believed that the only way to survive in Vietnam was to just take it one day at a time. He knew that on any day, something could happen to him, but “you were always hopeful that everything was going to be ok.”
As a helicopter pilot, he also did recon, ran supplies and troops as well as rescued wounded Marines and Vietnamese.
He recalled, “You never knew who your enemy was. They were Vietnamese today and Viet Cong tonight and it was tough.”
Brickell recollected, “Sometimes, I’d be so nervous I could hardly write down what we were going to do, but once you climbed up in the helicopter and cranked it up…our job was flying the helicopter.”
He told stories spanning his 14-month deployment of being involved in Operation Hastings, missions around the now-famous landmark called “The Rockpile,” and the Battle of Khe Sanh.
Brickell mused that he was “very fortunate that the helicopter didn’t get hit too many times.”
The men recalled how difficult it was being completely separated from loved ones for over a year. Unable to even call home, he said they really had to harden themselves to get through the war. They tried to keep busy and entertained by playing games, recording themselves on reel to reel recorders and taking pictures to send home.
Sometimes, the worst happened and they were dealt the loss of a fellow Marine. That was the toughest blow of all.
Alice spoke about living with the worry of her husband at war, “I felt that he’d been well trained…and I had met quite a few of the men that he worked with and had full confidence that they were going to do the best they could to keep each other alive.”
She went on to say she received little news about the war so in the absence of information she believed for the best and kept herself busy with work and raising Paul.
Ruth Ann, who passed away four years ago, was also a dutiful military wife tending to the home fires and raising their little girl as she awaited the return of her Marine from Vietnam.
When asked of their reunion, Jay said that Ruth Ann met him in St. Louis.
There was joy but also sadness as Ruth Ann told him that at the same time she received the news of his landing in California, she also received word of her grandmother’s passing. Jay choked up recalling, “She was in poor health but had said she wanted to live until I got home safely. You talk about a prayer warrior. She prayed for me every day.”
Geri was 20 months old when he got home. “It’s hard for a young child to reconnect with a parent when you’ve been gone so long. She was standing way back.”
Alice wistfully remembered, “My parents took care of our son and we met in Chicago.” David interjected, “The best flight of my life.”
Alice went on, “It was incredible. He’s alive. He’s here! I thought he was handsome when he left but when I saw him he was perfect, just perfect!”
When they got back to New York, Alice said little Paul hid behind her for a while but finally snuck out and ran across the room to him.
It isn’t lost on these men that the war cost nearly 60,000 Americans lives. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were wounded and some 1,700 are missing in action. Sometimes David and Jay wonder why they came home and others didn’t. There is no answer for that. Just profound gratitude that they did and for the wonderful lives they were given to build going forward.
And they hold the most sacred honor for their brothers; the living and the lost.
Jay and David did what soldiers do; they train tirelessly to be the best of the best and do what their country asks of them even when it means being sent into a war zone from which they may never return.
If you look into the eyes of a soldier when he’s retelling stories like these you see them pool like glass at times. Words still don’t come easy when describing what they saw; what they lived; what they survived.
And words really fall short when trying to express the gratitude for having lived to tell….