Vietnam veteran Jerry Ashby said for 33 years he lived a "reclusive life" only sharing limited information regarding his military service with close family members. He said he was one among the many other Vietnam veterans who didn’t receive the typical soldier’s welcome home. It’s too late now, he said, adding that he has made peace with it.
His life, he said, changed in June 1, 2009, when he joined the Patriot Guard Riders.
"The healing from that pain began that day," he said, as a member of that motorcycle organization. The Patriot Guard attends fallen soldier military funerals to show honor and respect to fallen soldiers, their families and their communities.
Ashby was the guest speaker at the Veterans Day program held Nov.4, at the Museum of Veterans and Military History in Vilonia, where about 400 were in attendance. He joined the Navy in 1964. Self-described, he said he was a "proud member of the Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club." The only rifle he said he carried was a World War II M-1 Garand in boot camp. It was not really a weapon, he said "but more of a punishment device."
"I was destined to become an aviation electrician and maintain electrical systems on Navy aircraft, my weapon would be a Simpson 260 multi-meter.
His battlefield, he said, was a huge chunk of "American steel," called an aircraft carrier with a flattop called the flight deck. The greatest enemy, he added was the U.S. weapon systems.
"We lived our lives on the foul line everyday—surrounded by aircraft laden with heavy weapons," he added. "Our A-4C Skyhawk aircraft destroyed North Vietnam enemy targets and provided close air support for our ground troops and aided in search and rescue for downed pilots. We suffered our share of losses—pilots, door gunners and flight deck crew members."
He shared a story regarding July 29, 1967, when he was aboard the USS Constellation. The ship had just left Vietnam for a short period of "R and R," rest and relaxation in the Philippines. Less than 24 hours later, they were recalled back to the line in Vietnam.
Fire had occurred onboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin. An electrical anomaly caused the discharge of a Zuni rocket on the flight deck, he said, triggering a chain reaction of explosions that killed 134 sailors and injured 161.
"We steamed full speed upon arrival," he said. "It was all hands on deck. We witnessed the carnage first hand. She was still on fire and leaning to one side. The sights, sounds and smells can never be erased from your mind. Officers and senior enlisted came aboard the Constellation and gave us somber accounts of the events that had occurred including many acts of sheer bravery by 18 year olds."
Everyone who serves in a war has some level of PTSD, he said. "True healing and peace will only be found in service to others. Give others what you can. In the end, we all served where we were sent and did what we were told."
A 45-minute program, the event ended with the Parade of Flags where 100 veterans posted flags for fallen soldiers. The Vilonia High School Ceremony Band performed patriotic music. As well, Vilonia residents Kenneth Heer and his daughter Anastacia sang patriotic songs. The Rose Bud High School Honor Guard posted the colors for the event.