I was sitting with my friend, my hero Ken Fagen. Our conversation went from Baseball, Tim Raines and the Hall of fame also the fact that if Ivan Rodriguez got into the hall of fame then Thurman Munson also belonged in the hall. The conversation seemed to drift from the love of the game.
And how his love of the Yankees kept him from realizing that someday he would be away from the deadly war that he had been involved in called Vietnam, to be able to be back home and go to Yankee Stadium again and see number seven Mickey Mantle hit home runs. However my curiosity took the conversation back to Vietnam and the subject of how he carefully respected the handling of the remains of our fallen heroes.
What Ken told me was scary,courageous, and as Ken was talking I was saying to myself that things like this can only happen in movies.
These are Ken’s own words in the following paragraphs:
During my Vietnam days, I had the privilege as a Loadmaster with the United States Air Force, I participated in the return of many of the fallen. I had to tell him that today we escort the fallen home with flag over the metal coffin, and we provide all the dignity possible. It was not always like that. In the middle 1960s with the Vietnam war having its darkest moments it was a different time in a different place. In the beginning, it was not unusual to return to or three metal caskets don the same flight with the mission terminating a Dover AFB, Delaware. As the War progressed with the War escalating our missions increased, and we were bringing more materials into the War Zone. Our losses were also increasing. It was not unusual to depart Than Son Nhut, Vietnam, with eighty or more fallen comrades. There was no one there to escort, we handled the metal caskets stacked on pallets like cord wood. We loaded the pallets with ten or twelve caskets each. There were no flags, no ceremony, it was just a job, and it had to be done. There was a separate receipt for each of the remains. The Load master had to sign each. On the receipt were the Name, Rank, serial number, and cause of death. Most were the traumatic cause. And indicating whether the body was intact, or citing the dismemberment. This was the byproduct of a dirty war. No war is clean. After takeoff, the only good thoughts were that we were returning the fallen to their families so they could mourn in peace. Upon arrival a Dover AFB, again no demonstration of honor, the pallets were removed to the mortuary. Another mission completed.
There were brighter moments under less than desirable circumstances. The Medical Air Evacuation Flights. Usually these missions were transporting mostly litter patients severely wounded. The Aircraft (C-135) was the state of the art of the time. The Doctors and Nurses were some the hardest working people I have ever been around. The most difficult thing for all, was to hold your emotions in tack. One instance was a departure from Clark AB, Philippines, about 45 litters en route to Kelly AFB, where there was a Burn Center near there. The Air Craft Commander reported 60 souls on board for departure. Before we arrived at Kelly he had to report we were landing with 58 souls on board. Two had expired in route. Some called these missions Angel Flights, and for most of us crew members it was just another day at the office. We all are proud to have served, and proud to have been part of the three percent. At age eighty I still remember, and still shed tears.
This part of my many duties performed during my seven years flying missions in Vietnam. I am grateful today our Nation has a different outlook. Our fallen are returned home with Honor and Dignity. Our military are respected. Men and Women of our armed forces have no politics, they just serve. I have no regrets for my twenty years of Service to this great country.
Ken is truly one of the greatest persons that I have ever known. He has thought me to really appreciate a lot of the little things of life. The last fifteen years he has had a part time job with the Yankees in Tampa and he treats it like he is the president of AT&T. He got to know George Steinbrenner and I can honestly say that that may of been the greatest moment of his life, and your talking about a man (Ken) that has been awarded medals from generals.
When I ask Ken about that he says, when you get to know the Steinbrenner family the respect they give you is staggering. Their love of this country and the people that have served the armed forces have made me feel that my time serving my country did not go in vain.
I will always be so great full to them.