Time with a Hero

 

During the course of our lives, we meet many different people from all walks of life. From our encounters, we gain new perspective and awareness and sometimes enlightenment. In 1990, as a young officer stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, I was assigned to the staff duty roster as was many of my peers. Once your name came up in the rotation, you could be assigned to a host of additional duties and assignments. One of those roles was that of an Escort Officer for visiting dignitaries, high ranking military officers from foreign countries and other high profile personalities that would visit the base. The Escort Officer was charged with fulfilling the itinerary and coordinating different functions during the visit.

 

Fort Benning is one of our premier Army bases and is the Home of the Infantry. Each year, the Infantry School trains thousands of recruits, non-commissioned officers and officers for warfare. The base was a bustle of activity and there were always visitors. One day, my name came up in the rotation and I was called to the Post HQ to receive my assignment. Upon reading my orders, I was struck with the emotions of being both tremendously excited and terribly nervous. I was going to be the Escort Officer for a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

 

The veteran whom I would have the honor and privilege of escorting was none other than Colonel Lewis L. Millett. During the Korean War, then Captain Millett was cited for valor for leading the last major American bayonet charge against an enemy. He sported a distinctive red handle-bar mustache, this would be his moniker. Part of his citation reads, “His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder.” Colonel Millett had a long and storied military career beginning in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, he soon went AWOL (Absent without Leave) so he could join the Canadian Army and get into to fight against Nazi Germany. After serving in England with Canadian troops, he transferred back to the U. S. Army after Pearl Harbor in 1942. A year later he would be court-martialed for desertion, but by then he had distinguished himself in combat and was a sergeant fighting in Italy. He had already taken part in the invasion of North Africa and had earned the Silver Star for action in the Tunisian Campaign. He was fined $52 for his court-martial and later received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant.

 

Also travelling with Colonel Millett was retired Warrant Officer Keith Payne of the Australian Army. Warrant Officer Payne had been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in action while serving in Vietnam. The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest military decoration awarded for valor. Warrant Officer Payne was quite the personality also, charismatic and flamboyant, his distinctive Aussie accent was forceful and commanding.

 

I remember going to receive them in my best pressed BDU’s and spit-shined jump boots, standard SOP for a good North Georgia grad. Although age and time had changed his hair and mustache from red to white, his features and presence were striking. He wore his class A uniform and my first gaze peered at the little blue ribbon with the small white stars, his Medal of Honor award. I snapped off the best salute I could muster and greeted him firmly, “Good morning Colonel Millett and welcome to Fort Benning!” He crisply returned my salute and firmly responded, “Thank you Captain Daniel! Great to be here again.”  Warrant Officer Payne was equally striking in his Aussie uniform sporting their distinctive shorts. We made our way to our van and then headed off to make our stops on the itinerary.

 

One of the visits on our itinerary which has been etched in my memory all these years is a stop we made to a unit of infantry recruits training in the field. Upon nearing our destination, this was the most visibly excited I had seen the two heroes. It was a pretty hot day, even in the fall, and Colonel Millett had taken off his class A jacket, but as we exited the vehicle, Colonel Millett grabbed his jacket and looked over at me and winked as he said, “I can’t let down the troops, they will want to see this little ribbon.” I smiled and said, “Yes sir, they certainly will.” When he addressed the troops, you could see that he was in his element. He spoke to them with empathy, but his delivery was confident and commanding. He was a leader. As I listened to him speak, my mind drifted to imagine his speech to his troops some forty years before, as he stood at the base of a cold, wind-swept and heavily defended hill in Korea and commanded his troops to fix bayonets and attack. I could see the young officer in battle dress with the turned up cap and red handle-bar mustache yelling the order to charge. I could see him leading and advancing on the enemy with tenacity and purpose, driving out the enemy with the fury of cold steel. My mind returned to the present and I saw the same passion from a distinguished veteran with white hair and mustache, his presence still captivating.

 

Warrant Officer Payne would not go unnoticed, as we were walking among the troops; one errant soldier was resting his hand over the muzzle of his weapon. Warrant Officer Payne slapped him on the shoulder and pointed his finger in the young troops face and said, “Keep your bloody hand off of that muzzle if you don’t want it blown off!” The poor soldier’s eyes were as big around as saucers as he corrected himself and held the weapon properly. The OIC (Officer in Charge) of the site and me glanced over at each other and shrugged. Slapping the soldier about the shoulders was not generally the approved method of correcting a soldier, but neither I nor the OIC were going to admonish a recipient of the Victoria Cross. I will guarantee that the soldier never made that mistake again.

 

As we departed on our way back into the main post, the two men were in great spirits albeit a little tired from the day’s activities. We talked about things going on in the Army at that time and they shared stories of their time in service and experiences they had throughout the years. It was a genuine pleasure to not only learn about their experiences, but to also learn about them personally, as men. They had families; they had children and grandchildren, aches and pains of growing old, all of the things you think about with “normal” people. The fact is they were “normal” people, certainly blessed with some extraordinary traits, but never the less, “normal” people. This was struck home when I asked Colonel Millett, “What was it like being a hero?” His answer was telling, he leaned back and said, “Well Captain Daniel,” then he leaned back into me and his words grew softer, “Chip, we are all heroes. Every one of us who makes a stand for freedom and it’s our responsibility to continue to fight for that freedom.” He leaned back into his seat and then said, “Oh, it’s a lot of fanfare and a few free meals here and there!” Warrant Officer Payne grinned as he took a drag off of his English cigarette and we continued on to their quarters.

 

Their VIP quarters were situated in one of the “Quads” at Fort Benning, the “Quads” were used as quarters for students staying at the post and theirs had been specially upgraded for VIP’s. When we reached our destination, I was a bit saddened that the day was going to end, and then Colonel Millett asks, “Will you come in and have a drink with us?” I said, “It would be my honor sir.” I walked in to their quarters with them and they had a dayroom that was stocked with refreshments for them. Warrant Officer Payne had a scotch and Colonel Millett and I had a beer. We had some more laughs and stories and then it was time to leave. We shook hands and we all wished each other well. Driving home that evening, I thought about the day and the wonderful experience I shared with two war heroes. I called my parents that night to tell them about my Escort Duty with Colonel Millett and Warrant Officer Payne. I told my dad, “I spent the day and had a beer with a hero today.” My dad said that I would remember that for the rest of my life. I sure have and I sure will. 

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My Tribute to Mama

Happy Birthday Mama,
Thank You

My Mother’s birthday is coming up on September 28th and I would like to honor her in a special way this year. I want to share her life story and what she has meant to me.
She has been called by many names. She has been called Mary, Edna, Mrs. Kelly, Mrs. Daniel, “Miss Edna” and “Teetnin”. It has been my good fortune to call her Mama.
She grew up in “Pepperton”, a small mill village east of Jackson during the Depression. Their bank accounts were not large, but their hearts and souls were full of love. She saw the advent of the indoor bathroom and can remember drinking a “3 cent’er” soft drink. She used to enjoy going to her Grandmother’s home and playing in the country and savoring the offerings from the fruit trees. She enjoyed playing with dolls as a little girl and swimming at the pool at Indian Springs. When she was a young teenager, she and three of her friends pooled their money and bought an old convertible “ Model A” or “Model T”, I cannot remember exactly which one. Mama had the distinct privilege of being the driver because she was the only one who knew how at the time.
Very soon, she would catch the eye of a handsome young man, Carl Kelly. In the course of their courtship, they fell in love and married. They began a new life together. He, as a soldier and she, an Army wife.
Life on army posts in those days could be challenging. I can remember mama telling me of having to go out in the snow and chopping wood for their stove and drawing water from a well pump.
Mama would soon be stricken with rheumatic fever. She would be restricted to bed rest. It was at that time that she came home to Jackson so my grandmother “Bon Bon” could help care for her. Their young sons would stay at Ft. Lewis with their father where he was helped out with the boys by some army wives. Then fate would strike again. The Korean War started up and Carl was to be called overseas.
He brought the boys back to Jackson. He then bid a tearful farewell to mama and boarded a train back to Ft. Lewis. This would be the last time that she would ever see him. Carl was killed in Korea and regaled as a war hero, as was so eloquently detailed in an article in this paper some time ago. Highway 16 running east out of Jackson was named in his honor.
A new phase of life would begin for mama and her three boys. Thru the pain and the grieving, she found an inner strength and courage to forge on with life. She had come full circle, having left Jackson as a young teenage girl, living the life of a soldier’s wife at different points on the compass, and now returning to Jackson as a young woman, a mother and a widow.
She and her boys took up residence in the Deraney apartments. She also worked for her Uncle Ralph, who had a store there in town. She also forged some lifelong friendships while living in the apartments, friendships still strong to this day. This was a period of transition. Mama would begin dating again and would meet a man from Griffin, Ed Daniel, my father. They would be married in the National Guard armory in Jackson. Right across the street would be their new home, etched out of a field where an old farm once stood. Mama had bore three sons and would soon give life to another two, me and my little brother Joe.

Mama is one of the wisest people I have known. As a young child, she taught me about manners and courtesy. I still have memorized the little phrase she repeated over and over, “Yes m’am, No m’am, Thank you m’am, Please.” It is these little memories that make mama, that make all of our mothers, so special.
I was in the second grade when tragedy would once again visit my mother. My older brother Timmy was killed in a traffic accident in California. This was my first real life lesson about grief and loss. Many years later, my brother Pat was also killed in a traffic accident. Yet, my mother displayed profound courage in working thru her grief and anguish. By watching her example, I came to understand that one could rebound and engage life again with a positive attitude and a strong relationship with God. As I continued to grow, I would learn other lessons on life from mama’s example about dignity, character, compassion, courage, courtesy, respect and a reverence of God and love.

One of the most enjoyable benefits of living under Miss Edna’s roof was her cooking. Whether having a wholesome breakfast of eggs, bacon and biscuits for breakfast before school, or having mama’s oven BBQ chicken with mashed potatoes on a cool fall evening, it was all good. But it was also comforting, both physiologically and emotionally. A good meal shared by family imparts a sense of home and belonging. Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting down to the dinner table enjoying one of mama’s meals.
When I’m feeling low or down about something, I look to my mother’s example to boost my morale and pick myself up. She is my hero and she will be forever. My soul is enriched every time I speak to her and hear her voice. Many times I wish I lived in Jackson once again so I could see her every day.
Those of us of faith no doubt wonder what it will be like when we are finally called to heaven. For me, in my own dreams, I do not see pearly gates and lands of milk and honey. My vision of heaven is that of a little boy of about 10, clad in blue jeans and T-shirt running across a field of grass in the bright sunshine. I’m running towards my house. Standing on the back porch is my mama. I reach my mama and fall into her arms with an embrace. When I realize that dream, I will know that I have made it to heaven.
I thank God daily for blessing me and my brothers with our mother.
Thank You and Happy Birthday Mama.
I Love You,
Chip