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Serving her country was the

best thing Melanie Wicker ever did

Serving in both the Navy and the Army in a career spanning nearly three decades wasn’t just a good career for Mount Sterling’s Sergeant First Class Melanie Wicker. It was the best thing she ever did.

“I have financial security and health security,” she said. “I loved my life in the military. I traveled, met many interesting people, and I love the structure. You knew what was expected of you.”

At a young age, she was fascinated with anatomy and knew she wanted to pursue a career as a mortician or funeral director.

At age 27, she had two college degrees and her Embalmer and Funeral Director licenses. She left her hometown of Jeffersonville near Mount Sterling to embark on an adventure that would take her to Guam, Iraq, Virginia, the U.S. Naval Hospital in Beaufort, S.C., Fort Knox, Ky. and many other places.

When the Navy sent her to Great Lakes, Ill. and she mentioned she was a licensed mortician, she eventually became a Navy mortician. She was first female mortician ever to serve the Navy.

At the end of her active Navy duty, she moved to Hopkinsville. While working at a funeral home there, she switched from the Naval Reserves to an Army Reserve Unit located in Hopkinsville. In June 2004, she was mobilized and deployed to Al Asad Airbase Airbase Iraq with the 561st CSG from Omaha, Neb.

When her unit left Fort Riley, Kan., temperatures were below freezing, but by the time they arrived in Kuwait, the temperatures soared above 100 degrees at night.

“It wasn’t as bad as in Iraq where it sometimes would be 145 degrees,” she said.

She will never forget January 26, 2005 when a helicopter crash killed 30 Marines and one Naval Hospital Corpsman in Iraq, while an ambush killed four other Marines that same morning. She, and the Marines at the Mortuary Affairs Collection Point, worked nearly three days without sleep to prepare “the angels” for return to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where their remains would be provided for the final journey home.

“It was a mission to be accomplished as expediently as possible,” she said. “You didn’t think about being tired. It had to be done.”

In recognition of her outstanding career, she was awarded the Bronze Star and many other medals.

She is looking forward to going on the Operation HERoes Honor Flight with 134 other women veterans on June 11. Operation HERoes is sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA), the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and UPS. The mission is the first all-female mission that Lexington-based Honor Flight Kentucky (HFK) has coordinated.


Verna Fairchild achieved many military firsts for women

Throughout distinguished careers serving in both the military and mental health in Kentucky, Frankfort’s Verna D. Fairchild has displayed an incredible work ethic that helped her rise from a career in nursing to a two-star Major General in the U.S. Air Force/Air National Guard.

Raised in the small town of Poseyville, IN, she graduated from the Deaconess School of Nursing in nearby Evansville, worked at the local hospital for nine years and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1968.

She was in charge of nursing services at Grissom Air Force Base north of Indianapolis then transferred to the Kentucky Air National Guard (ANG) and developed into a trailblazer for military women in Kentucky and nationally.

In 1986, she took command of the 123rd Tactical Hospital in Louisville, which was the first time a member of the Nursing Corps held such a position.

A few years later, she became the first ANG assistant for nursing under the surgeon general at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and eventually became the first female in Kentucky and ANG history appointed as assistant adjutant general in Frankfort. She closed her illustrious military career as assistant to the national ANG director for support readiness in Arlington, VA.

While she achieved so much in the military, she also held a civilian job for 27 years becoming the assistant to the commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Services.

There was a time, she said when — between her military and civilian jobs combined — she worked three months without a single day off.

Looking back, she said it is a good feeling to see how far women have advanced today with so many more opportunities.

“I hope I have helped pave the way for younger women,” she said.

She is looking forward to joining 134 other women veterans on the June 11 Operation HERoes Honor Flight from Lexington to Washington, D.C. Operation HERoes is sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA), the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and UPS. The mission is the first all-female mission that Lexington-based Honor Flight Kentucky (HFK) has coordinated.


Ashley Hawkins awarded the Bronze Star with valor 

  

The life of Army veteran Ashley Hawkins, 38, defines heroic determination in the face of great obstacles.

Hawkins, who lives in Harrodsburg with her husband and five children, became the first woman in U.S. military history to receive the Bronze Star with valor for her heroism during a battle known as the Palm Sunday Ambush in Iraq.

That day in 2005 will never be forgotten in her family’s long record of military service. When she was 7, her mom joined the Navy. They lived in Maryland, Virginia, Florida and in Kentucky, where she graduated from Elizabethtown’s Central Hardin High in 2002.

After high school, Hawkins joined the National Guard and chose the Military Police, which does law enforcement at home and combat support when deployed. “I knew I could come back and find work,” she said.

Following basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, she worked at Walmart in Lexington, attended the University of Kentucky and served in the Guard. Her unit assisted during Lexington’s February 2003 ice storm, and provided security during the Kentucky Derby and other events.

In the summer of 2004, she got married. In September, she was reattached to the 617th Military Police Company in Richmond. Just days after being assigned, she learned the 617th was going to Iraq. At the age of 20, she began driving a Humvee in Iraq with MP teams ensuring the safety of convoys, looking for improvised explosive devices as they traveled across Baghdad 16 hours a day.

“You don’t have time to think,” she said. “You are busy. You get up and do your job all day. I had one 11-day stretch without any sleep.”

On Palm Sunday 2005, she was in a convoy driving with her MP squad — three vehicles each carrying three MPs — when the group came under attack. The MPs pulled to a side road to draw fire and protect the convoy. They jumped out and returned fire until she a heard a call from medic Jason Mike who was riding in the MP vehicle behind her team.

“Everybody is down,” Mike said. “I need help.”

Hawkins climbed in her vehicle, backed up toward the Humvee, got out and started assessing the injuries. Gunner William Haynes from Paducah was shot in the hand, driver Brian Mack of Bowling Green was shot in the shoulder, suffering internal injuries, and team leader Joseph Rivera of Shepherdsville was screaming in pain on the ground.

She gave Rivera her rifle and ran back to her vehicle for medical supplies then returned to help the injured team and Rivera by putting pressure on his wound. Another Humvee pulled up and she told them to get a medivac. She helped load the injured into the vehicle to take them to a helicopter landing zone.

When the chopper arrived, she helped get the injured aboard. Rivera was still in a Humvee going into shock. But Hawkins made sure he got on before it flew away. Miraculously, all three lived.

After the battle, the soldiers found a large cache of enemy weapons and loaded it into Hawkins’ Humvee, which she drove back to base despite the dangers. On June 14, 2005, she made U.S. military history by being first woman awarded the Bronze Star with valor for her actions during the battle.

She came home that fall, but a year of war had transformed her into a much different person. She divorced and remarried.

Over the past year, she has shifted her attention to fighting a different kind of battle against cancer. This June will mark a year since her diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments began. “You get up and do what you have to do,” she said.

As challenging as life has been, she is extremely excited to be going on the Operation HERoes Honor Flight with 135 other women veterans on June 11. Operation HERoes is sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA), the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and UPS. The mission is the first all-female mission that Lexington-based Honor Flight Kentucky (HFK) has coordinated.

“I would do it all over again,” she said. “I enjoyed my time in the service. It was traumatic yes, but there were more ups than downs. You have to look on the bright side. The downs happen, but you have to learn how to live with them and move on. If you stay in a negative mindset, that’s where you will be. I don’t look at the negative things from March 20. Was I scared? Most likely, but there were three people’s lives saved.”


Joanne Fry helped open the doors for women to serve

Joanne Cerasuolo Fry, originally from Seaford, New York, served 11 years in the United States Navy, joining after graduating from high school at the age of 17 in 1978. She always knew she wanted a military career, ever mindful of the challenges she would face.

Standing tall and often alone, she graduated with honors from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and was commissioned as an ensign. This was only the third class to graduate women. The first class graduated in 1980 and contained 55 women and her class contained 63.

“I consider my experience as one that helped to open the doors for women to serve,” she said. “We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

After graduating, Fry chose Naval Intelligence as her field and she joined the Patrol Squadron Six (VP-6) in Barbers Point, Hawaii as one of only two female members. VP-6 is also known as the “World Famous Blue Sharks,” which is an anti-submarine patrol aircraft squadron. She served two deployments to the Philippines where her unit completed highly successful operations against Soviet submarines in the South China Sea.

Her second duty assignment was as an Imagery Analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in Washington, D.C. from 1986 to 1989, where she worked with highly classified materials in support of national security. After leaving the military, she worked for a year as a computer analyst with GE Aerospace before resigning to pursue teaching as a career.

Her re-entry into civilian life has included over 30 years of teaching high school mathematics in Kentucky and Georgia. She and her husband reside in Barren County, Kentucky where she still teaches part-time.

Fry is honored to have been selected for the June 11 Operation HERoes Honor Flight and is looking forward to meeting other women who have served our country. “Seeing the monuments will be an awesome experience” she said. “However, honoring the women who worked diligently in so many capacities is beyond amazing.”

Paula L. Ratliff


Carolyn Furdek is grateful for service

Carolyn Furdek, 44, of Louisville vividly remembers flying into Afghanistan in May 2002 wearing her uniform, weapons at her side, and being accompanied by a group of NFL cheerleaders doing a USO show.

In that moment, she realized how opportunities for women had opened wide in the military from the time of her grandmother’s service during World War II, to her mother’s distinguished Army career to the present.

“I thought back to the generations of female soldiers before me, including my grandmother and mother, and realized how far women had come in our roles in the military and combat,” she said. “And my heart was filled with pride and gratitude to serve my country.”

Capt. Furdek is going on the June 11 all-female veteran Honor Flight called Operation HERoes with her mom, Lt. Col. Margaret “Missy” Logan. Operation HERoes is sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs (KDVA), the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) and UPS. The mission is the first all-female mission that Lexington-based Honor Flight Kentucky (HFK) has coordinated.

Military service is all in Furdek’s family. In addition to the service of her mom and grandmother, her dad attended the Air Force Academy and served. Her grandfathers on both sides served during WWII, and her uncle retired from the Air Force.

As a child, Furdek’s family lived in Virginia, Colorado and California. During her high school year in Georgia, she became an accomplished swimmer and upon graduation was accepted into both the Naval Academy and West Point. After reading Gen. Colin Powell’s biography, “My American Journey,” she chose the Army and engineering.

Only 7.7 percent of thousands of applicants get accepted at West Point each year. That year in 1996, 1,200 made it in. Four years later, she graduated with about 860 remaining classmates.

“I made lifelong friends there,” she said. “In addition to being an extremely challenging academic program, it’s great preparation to be a leader.”

After the world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, Furdek arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2002. Her civil affairs unit protected coalition forces and she led projects to build schools for local girls.

In March 2003, her unit supported the invasion of Iraq, building an airfield south of Bagdad for the wounded. “We used bulldozers to clear cars off roads, cleared lanes for troops at the border,” she said. “My company set up south of Bagdad in the first days of the war, and eventually settled just north of Bagdad, rebuilding the airfield. We set up a temporary base for helicopters to land and refuel.”

In February of 2004 she left Iraq and planned to become an FBI agent, but her life changed once again in May 2005 when the Army called her back to Kandahar, Afghanistan. There, her unit built a road to improve local villagers’ access to health care and make it easier for them to vote.

Furdek received a Bronze Star and other decorations for her service in Iraq, Afghanistan and the War on Terror. After leaving the Army, she returned to Washington, D.C., worked with patients as a volunteer at Walter Reed Hospital, decided to become a physical therapist, then roomed with her grandmother in Louisville before graduating from Bellarmine University with a degree in physical therapy in 2012.

She and her husband have two children, and she is in frequent touch with her West Point classmates and veterans she will never forget.

“I’m so grateful,” she said. “I would do it all over again. I love our country and we’re free for a reason.”


Julia Martin: an outstanding veteran

As the youngest and only girl of four, Julia (Cantrell) Martin was accustomed to standing her ground against boys. And that’s exactly what she did in 1952 when she announced her decision to follow her brothers into the armed services.

“They didn’t like the idea,” the Lexington native recalled about the reaction of her siblings who served in World War II and the Korean War. “They just didn’t think it was a good thing for women to go into the military.”

But Julia was determined. The education assistance benefit earned by service members could be her ticket to college, she thought.

Female enlistment in the Air Force had begun only four years before Julia joined.

There were only about 22,000 women in the armed services then.

Of the 52 women in her squadron during basic training, she was one of only two African-Americans. Being a minority didn’t deter Julia, however. Her exceptional leadership as a trainee earned her the American Spirit Honor Medal — the first of many recognitions she has received.

Julia became a technical manual librarian at Eglin Air Force Base where aircraft was tested. “Every part of every plane tested had its own manual, and I was in charge of keeping them filed and in order,” she said about the tedious, yet important, job.

Her dedication to important work didn’t stop when Julia left the service in 1954. After attending college, she spent 25 years working at the Lexington-Blue Grass Army Depot. She also volunteered for many community organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Operation Read, Read to Succeed and Big Sisters. She remains an active member of the local chapter of the National Association for Black Veterans, an organization that helps African-Americans gain access to military benefits and services.

The veteran’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. Julia has been inducted into the Kentucky Veterans Hall of Fame, and was named the Kentucky Female Veteran of the Year in 2015.


Donnie Estes is proud to serve

Photo by Tim Webb

It’s a long way from the rural community of Becknerville in Clark County to the 38th parallel of Korea, but 90-year-old Donnie Estes of Mount Sterling is proud that he left the family farm at age 22 to serve his country.

Estes grew up without indoor plumbing or the comforts of life, so he was well prepared for the trials of Army life before arriving in Korea.

Working just a few miles behind the front lines, Estes repaired tanks, trucks, artillery guns and tank turrets. He was so good at fixing equipment, the Army promoted him four times, and he had 12 people working under him, which was pretty good for someone with a 7th grade education. “The college guys didn’t like that,” he said.

Estes used a sleeping bag and slept in a tent during the entire 15 months he was in Korea. It’s ironic, he said, that the 38th parallel goes around the world and straight through Winchester where he grew up. Unfortunately, Estes lost nearly all his hearing because of the constant bombardment in Korea.

He came home, married, had two children and farmed until 1972 when he started the Estes Equipment Co. in Winchester, manufacturing machinery for companies across the country. Estes designed and held patents on equipment to spread lime, fertilizer and seed, and he built a machine that was one of the first in Kentucky to blow bark onto playgrounds.

He looks back on his service with pride. The places he saw destroyed upon his arrival in Korea have grown into thriving cities, and nearly 58 million people live free in South Korea today.

“I feel good about what we did,” he said. “I’d go back tomorrow if they called me.”


Joe Graber remembers service to keep Korea free

Photo by Tim Webb

Joe Graber, 88, will never forget the first night he arrived in Korea.

In May 1952, after one month of being seasick almost daily sailing from the west coast of the U.S. to Korea, Graber finally arrived near the front lines and climbed into his bunk at 3 a.m.

“I took off all my clothes except underwear and a T-shirt, no boots,” he said.

He slept until North Korean mortars rained down on the camp.

“I put on my boots, grabbed my carbine and 45 and started to run, but I stepped on my shoelaces and fell down,” said Graber, who lives in Somerset.

“Explosions were going on all around, and somebody ran by and yelled, ‘Hey, get under one of those tanks.’”

Graber, then a 20-year-old Army private, scrambled between a tank’s treads and started praying. “I stayed there all night because I was afraid to move,” he said. “From then on, I slept every night wearing clothes, carried a 45 and kept my boots on.”

In commemoration of Veteran’s Day 2021, Honor Flight Kentucky joins with Kentucky Living magazine (see the November issue) in saluting Graber and more than 18,000 Korean War veterans who live in the state.

Graber said he will never forget visiting the Korean War Veterans Memorial during the 2015 Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.

“It took me back to 1953,” he said. “I almost started crying when I saw them (the statuettes) with the rain coats and the helmets. It was the greatest day of recognition I’ve ever had for being in the service.”


Bobby Gibson remembers his service in Vietnam

Photo by Tim Webb

Vietnam’s A Shau Valley is a long, narrow strip of bottomland covered with tall elephant grass, flanked by two densely forested mountain ridges whose summits rival that of the Appalachians. But as he dodged bullets there in 1968 and 1969, Bobby Gibson had little time to notice the geographic similarity to his Knott County home nearly 9,000 miles — and a world — away.

“We were deep in the jungle. There were no roads there,” said the veteran who now lives in Pendleton and is a member of Shelby Energy Cooperative.

Gibson served in an artillery unit in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. During a 12-month tour of duty, he was out of the jungle and away from fighting along the Ho Chi Minh trail for less than 24 hours.

Most of the time, he was positioned behind a 155 mm howitzer, an artillery piece that could strike with accuracy up to nine miles away. Large Chinook helicopters were constantly airlifting Gibson and his squad to “where the action was.” The fighting was intense and too often lethal.

It took “a little bit of bravery and a little bit of silliness” to survive the experience, he said.

Thinking back on a year of near constant warfare, Gibson recalls the 1968 Tet Offensive as the worst encounter. His unit was providing critical fire support to protect Marines who were surrounded by the enemy.

“We fought three days and three nights,” he said. In the end, only three Marines survived.

But Gibson also remembers a good day. It was one of the two times he left the jungle for a few hours.

“Me and one other guy got flown over to Da Nang to go see Bob Hope,” he said.  “They put on a heck of a show.”

Gibson was twice awarded the Bronze Star presented for “a heroic and meritorious deed performed in an armed conflict.” He also earned several service and combat medals.

He was scheduled to go on a one-day, all-expense-paid Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in September 2021. The mission had to be canceled due to safety concerns, but will hopefully take place in 2022.

“I’ve been trying to get to go for a long time,” he said about the trip that takes Kentucky veterans to view war memorials erected in their honor. The one-day excursion is sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives in cooperation with Honor Flight Kentucky.

When he goes, it will be Gibson’s first time visiting the nation’s capital. He’ll finally have an opportunity to view the Vietnam Veterans Wall where he’ll fondly recall the names and faces of fellow soldiers lost in the war — and remember a faraway jungle he’d prefer to forget.


Paying our respects to a Kentucky hero: Henry C. Ledford

Photo by Tim Webb

When 102-year-old veteran Henry C. Ledford traveled from Lexington to Washington D.C. during the 2019 Honor Flight, it was his first time traveling by air.

It was also the first time he saw the World War II Memorial honoring him and the 16 million Americans who served. When he visited the memorial, he thought about friends and the 400,000 Americans who fought and died in the war to keep the world free.

“A lot of them didn’t get home,” he said, fighting back tears.

Mr. Ledford, who lives in Clay County, turned 100 on the day after his 2019 Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. The co-ops sponsor Honor Flight each year to thank those who served in WWII as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It’s a small way of showing appreciation to veterans for what they’ve done.

One of the greatest things that Mr. Ledford’s 411th Infantry Regiment did during his service was to liberate prisoners from a concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany. “They were skin and bones and came out and grabbed us, hugged us and kissed us,” he said. “They were starved to death.”

After completing his service in the Army, Mr. Ledford worked his entire career as an electric lineman in several states. He joined about 70 other former warriors who participated in the 2019 Honor Flight.

He is also a big fan of Jackson Energy and the electric cooperatives that sponsored him because he remembers how life improved after the co-op brought power to rural Clay County. “It was incredible, like me getting my hearing aids,” he said with a laugh. “Before, you had to get kindling and go to the well to get water every morning. After the power came, all you had to do was flip a switch.”


Looking forward to 2022 mission

Photo by Tim Webb

It was 65 years ago this year that 20-year-old Marilyn McKenzie Esposito boarded a train that took her from Kentucky to basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama. The third of 10 children who grew up in Greenup County, she was looking for new opportunities and experiences. The U.S. Army did not disappoint.

“It was 1956, and I was anxious to get away but couldn’t afford college,” the Lexington resident said about her decision to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, the women’s branch of the Army. A senior class trip to Washington, D.C., was the furthest she had ever traveled from home.

“This was my first time being away from home, and I was so homesick,” she said about learning to live in a barracks crammed with 71 other young women. But she relished the opportunity to become acquainted with “people from all over,” some who became lifelong friends.

Following 16 weeks of training in Alabama and a brief assignment in Atlanta, Esposito boarded a plane bound for Bremerhaven, Germany, a port city on the North Sea.

“I had never traveled before. This was all a new adventure for me,” she said. “I was excited about going.”

Bremerhaven (Port of Bremen) was the docking point for ships carrying U.S. military personnel and their dependents. Esposito was assigned to the infirmary where arriving and departing passengers stopped for vaccinations and health record checks.

“I was there to greet Elvis,” the veteran said, referring to the famous 1957 arrival of a troopship carrying the entertainer to his European posting.

Esposito remembers her time in Germany fondly. “I loved getting to know the German people and traveling in Europe,” she said.

Bremerhaven is also where she met Anthony Esposito, another soldier assigned to the infirmary who would become her husband. Marilyn and Anthony married shortly after her tour of duty ended in 1959.

Their marriage would produce children and grandchildren. Granddaughter Sophie Johnson, 19, was scheduled to accompany her grandmother as a guardian on the September Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and coordinated by Honor Flight Kentucky. The flight was canceled due to safety concerns with the coronavirus, but HFK hopes to hold the mission in 2022.

Esposito knows a lot has changed in Washington since she was last there in 1954. She’s looking forward to joining the other 71 veterans on the flight to see monuments and other highlights.


West Liberty veteran reflects on service

Photo by Tim Webb

It took years of waiting, but Norvin Thompson of West Liberty will finally be among the military veterans boarding an Honor Flight for a trip to Washington, D.C.

“I had applied so long ago, that I’d almost forgotten about it,” the Army veteran said. “So when they called and said I was going, it was a real surprise.”

Thompson is a longtime member of Licking Valley Rural Electric Cooperative (LVRECC), which was scheduled to provide his one-day, all-expense-paid trip in September. The mission had to be canceled due to safety concerns, but will hopefully take place in 2022.

When the flight occurs, Norvin will join 70 other veterans from Kentucky who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War on the flight sponsored by LVRECC and Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. The mission is coordinated by Honor Flight Kentucky.

Making plans to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington’s National Mall prompts Thompson to think back on his two years of service.

“I served my country proudly, and I’d do it again,” he said. Though he’s proud to call himself “an American boy through and through,” Thompson admits Army life wasn’t fun.

“The sign on the wall said ‘Join the Army and see the world,’ but all the world I saw was from the back of a deuce and a half,” he joked, referring to the 2 ½ ton cargo trucks that moved Army personnel and equipment.

The story about how the Morgan County native landed in the back of one of those trucks began just a few weeks after his marriage to wife Sharon in 1969. He was drafted at age 19.

During boot camp at Fort Knox he was asked what area of work he wanted to pursue. The newlywed’s father-in-law and brother-in-law had both served as Army cooks and encouraged him to do the same. He trained as an executive chef before receiving orders to ship out for Vietnam.

Then the Army changed its mind. On his first wedding anniversary, he boarded a plane headed for Friedberg, Germany. For 12 consecutive months, he participated in field training exercises with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Armor Regiment. In addition to driving tanks and becoming an expert marksman, he was responsible for preparing meals for the hungry soldiers.

“We didn’t have all the conveniences like in a mess hall. We cooked out in the field,” he said, explaining how he prepared meals using portable, gas-fueled equipment.

For his service during the Vietnam War, Thompson was awarded the National Defense Service Medal. His proficiency with firearms earned him the Army’s sharpshooter designation.

The Army cook hung up his apron when his tour of duty was completed. He returned home in July 1971 to meet Shona Sue, his 14-month-old daughter who was born while he was in Europe. He later trained to become a respiratory therapist and worked at the local hospital for more than 35 years.

Since retiring, Thompson has begun expressing his patriotism in prose, which he’d like to share with fellow Honor Flight participants. He hopes his words inspire others to remember the strength, pride, freedom and bravery the American flag represents — as well as those who fought to protect it.


Vietnam veteran looks forward to flight

Photo by Tim Webb

George Atwood says he doesn’t think about Vietnam much anymore. After all, it’s been 50 years since the veteran was stationed on the Mekong River near the Cambodian border.

But when he does recall those days, he remembers the smell of the river, the heat, the rain — and the near-constant work. The Versailles resident was a diesel mechanic assigned to the Navy’s River Patrol Division 86. He repaired the engines of patrol boats sent out to prevent Viet Cong troop and supply movements.

The 70-year-old also remembers returning to the states and being ridiculed and degraded by anti-war protesters at the airport. It was not the reception George imagined when he enlisted at age 20. Memories of that homecoming still sting.

These days, George is looking forward instead of back. He’ll soon join 72 other Kentucky veterans on the upcoming Honor Flight, which could provide a do-over of sorts.

“I’m hoping we have a better homecoming this time around,” he said, referring to the celebration that traditionally concludes the daylong trip to Washington D.C.

Both the departure and the arrival will be sweeter because George will be with his brother, Jerry, an Army veteran. Serving their country was a family affair for the Atwoods. George was the youngest of seven boys, six of whom wore armed forces uniforms.

“Three of my brothers were in the Army, one was in the Air Force and one in the Marines,” he said. Three of the Atwood brothers served in Vietnam.

Two years ago George and Jerry applied for Honor Flight so they could join other Kentucky veterans to view memorials erected in their honor.

“Meeting other veterans is what I’m most looking forward to,” the retired law enforcement officer said. “Doing it with my brother makes it even better.”


WWII veteran reflects on his service time

Though his namesake red hair long ago gave way to a snowy white, Charles “Rusty” Hembree’s memories are crystal-clear. The Lexington resident, who is still practicing law at age 94, takes a moment away from work to reminisce about a boyhood in eastern Tennessee and his wartime service — and a surprising connection between the two.

Rusty was reared by his widowed mother on her family’s farm in the picturesque Tennessee Valley. Despite growing up during the Great Depression, Rusty remembers a happy childhood.

But life for the Hembrees took a drastic turn in 1942. Their land was acquired by the federal government, and they were forced to move to the city.

A year later, Rusty reported for Army boot camp just after his high school graduation.

“There was a war going on, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

He was assigned to the Army’s Air Corps and trained as a bombardier, the person responsible for releasing bombs from Boeing B-29 Superfortress planes.

Rusty was sent to Tinian, a part of the Marianas island chain the Americans seized specifically for staging bomber attacks on Japan. Here, his childhood and military service collided.

“We had no idea,” the veteran said about the first atomic bomb dropped by a B-29 bomber flown out of Tinian. “We were told after the first bomb dropped, but knew nothing before.”

Later, Rusty and some buddies drove to the site where the bomb had been hidden on the island. While others marveled at the site’s massive size, Rusty’s thoughts were elsewhere.

“I was amazed to think I had grown up right where that bomb had been built,” he said. The farm his family had been forced to vacate became the home of the Manhattan Project, the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where the first nuclear bombs were produced.


One of “the greatest generation”

Article and photo by Joy Bullock, South Kentucky RECC

He is one of those Americans known as “The Greatest Generation,” and at 98-years-old, Floyd Dick, of Monticello, served as a representative for South Kentucky RECC on September’s Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.

Mr. Dick was born in 1921, raised in Wayne County and proudly served in the United States Army during World War II for about three and a half years after getting drafted at the age of 21. He served as a quartermaster, which means he was responsible for providing supplies to his post, for missions and, sometimes, for the front line.

Mr. Dick says he spent most of his service in the South Pacific, particularly in the Philippines. He recalls that he was getting ready to be deployed to Japan when President Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bomb, which essentially ended World War II. So, instead of going to Japan, Mr. Dick made the trip back to the United States.

While he smiles when he talks about arriving in Tacoma, Washington to a victory celebration and feast, there are some memories of the war that make Mr. Dick take pause, and at times, tear up.

“Where we were the people were poor, very poor,” Mr. Dick said. “Some of our troops would give their food rations to the children of the area. They would toss them out, and the children would all pile in trying to get them.”

Another troubling memory for Mr. Dick was of a mortally wounded American soldier that the troops hadn’t been able to recover yet. It’s a picture he can’t get out of his mind – something he says he will never forget.

Mr. Dick says he made some life-long friends while serving. He and his sergeant, Bill Saum, of Nebraska, corresponded regularly until Mr. Saum passed away from cancer.

Following the war, Mr. Dick attended Nashville Diesel College and then spent 35 years as a mechanic in Wayne County. In 1947, he married the young lady he was “courting” when he left for war, and he and Mildred had two children – Kathy Vickery and Gary Dick, who went on the Honor Flight with him, as well as five grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

View photos from the flights sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives 

To view photos from all of the Honor Flights sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives (including the Sept. 21, 2018 flight), visit https://www.timwebbphotography.com/honor.



Kentucky sports icon is among this year’s Honor Flight participants

Roy Bowling isn’t certain who nominated him to participate in this year’s Honor Flight, but he’s certainly glad they did.

“I’m thrilled to death to get to go,” said the 82-year-old Jackson Energy Cooperative member who lives in London. Jackson Energy, along with Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives, is sponsoring the day-long trip that will take veterans to Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22.

Bowling joined the Kentucky National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 149th Infantry, just after he graduated from college in 1958. The Guard’s weekend and summer training schedule allowed him to serve his country while also pursuing a career in coaching high school sports. Bowling credits the discipline learned through military training with helping him succeed in his civilian job.

Succeed, however, might be an understatement. In the world of Kentucky basketball, the name Bowling is revered.

The former guardsman is also the man many regard as the most influential coach in the history of Kentucky girls’ high school basketball. He made a name for himself while coaching the first girls’ basketball team at Laurel County High School, after the sport was sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Sports Association in 1974.

The coach drew on his military experience to help him quickly mold green recruits into a basketball dynasty. In the program’s third year, 1977, the Lady Cardinals captured the

first of three consecutive state championships, a record that remains unbroken in 2018.

Bowling also coached the Laurel County team to another state record that still stands. Between 1978 and 1980, the Lady Cardinals had a 73-game winning streak.

When Bowling retired in 1989, he departed with a 15-year record of 403-61 and four state championships at Laurel County.

Though he has a storehouse of fond basketball memories, the basketball icon will be thinking of other things when he travels to the nation’s capitol alongside World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans. Together, they will view memorials erected in their honor.

He looks forward to seeing the Marine Corps War Memorial. There, he’ll think of his late brother, Troy, a Marine who was in the first wave that landed on the tiny Japanese island called Iwo Jima.

“He was shot bad on the second day, and they had given him up for dead,” Bowling said. Troy lay on the beach for hours, bleeding from a chest wound, before he attracted the attention of a combat photographer who called for help. He was taken to a hospital ship anchored offshore. From there, a recovering Troy watched as the U.S. flag was raised on Mt. Suribachi, the scene that would inspire the Marine memorial.

Troy also made a name for himself — by volunteering more than 77,000 hours at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lexington. On Aug. 9, the entire Bowling family will be on hand for a ceremony during which the hospital will be officially renamed in Troy Bowling’s honor.

So, if the Bowling name sounds familiar, there’s good reason. In fact, there are a couple of good reasons.


 97-year-old Vet Frank Zupan can’t wait for September Honor Flight

“Being at the front never did scare me,” 97-year-old Frank Zupan says matter-of-factly about his time as a World War II machine gunner.

Frank, one of the oldest WWII vets in Kentucky, volunteered for the Army as the U.S. war machine revved up in 1942. He was trained to fire a M1919 Browning machine gun. It was quite a leap for a young man who never handled guns while growing up in Michigan’s Hazel Park, a Detroit suburb where most household incomes were dependent on the giant Ford plant in neighboring Highland Park.

Four days shy of his 21st birthday, Frank made his first beachhead landing with the Army’s 7th Infantry Division in April 1943. He stepped ashore in the midst of the Battle of the Aleutian Islands as U.S. troops fought to reclaim U.S.-owned islands west of Alaska. It was the first of the island-hopping battles he’d engage in as the war raged across the Pacific Ocean.

That first battle was almost his last. “At one point, I had this feeling that there was somebody behind me,” Frank recalled. A split-second later his intuition was confirmed as an infantryman’s shot took down the enemy fighter poised to kill Frank.

For his heroism, Frank was awarded the Silver Star and Bronze Star. He also received a Purple Heart after being injured in battle.

The veteran clearly remembers the incident that earned him the Silver Star, the U.S. Armed Force’s third-highest personal decoration for valor in combat. It happened at Leyte, Philippines Islands, when the rifle company he was supporting became pinned down

“My captain came and asked me if I could fire that thing [machine gun] from my hip,” he said about the heavy weapon normally mounted on a tripod. After crawling on his belly for 100 yards to get closer to enemy lines, Frank stood and shot nearly 1,000 rounds with enemy rifle and machine gun fire whizzing around him. The strategy worked; the enemy group was “destroyed,” his medal commendation noted.

It is this memory and others that Frank is likely to recall on Sept. 22 when he gets his first glimpse of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. He is participating in this year’s Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. During the one-day tour, he will join other Kentucky war veterans in touring memorials erected in their honor

This will be Frank’s second visit to Washington. He was there in 1995 — before the World War II memorial opened – when his son, also named Frank, was honored as the 1995 Sailor of the Year.

“I’m honored to get to return with my dad,” said Frank’s son, who is his father’s guardian for the trip. “Just to get to go with my dad will be an incredible experience.”

Paying our respects to a Kentucky hero: Henry C. Ledford

Photo by Tim Webb

When 102-year-old veteran Henry C. Ledford traveled from Lexington to Washington D.C. during the 2019 Honor Flight, it was his first time traveling by air.

It was also the first time he saw the World War II Memorial honoring him and the 16 million Americans who served. When he visited the memorial, he thought about friends and the 400,000 Americans who fought and died in the war to keep the world free.

“A lot of them didn’t get home,” he said, fighting back tears.

Mr. Ledford, who lives in Clay County, turned 100 on the day after his 2019 Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. The co-ops sponsor Honor Flight each year to thank those who served in WWII as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. It’s a small way of showing appreciation to veterans for what they’ve done.

One of the greatest things that Mr. Ledford’s 411th Infantry Regiment did during his service was to liberate prisoners from a concentration camp near Landsberg, Germany. “They were skin and bones and came out and grabbed us, hugged us and kissed us,” he said. “They were starved to death.”

After completing his service in the Army, Mr. Ledford worked his entire career as an electric lineman in several states. He joined about 70 other former warriors who participated in the 2019 Honor Flight.

He is also a big fan of Jackson Energy and the electric cooperatives that sponsored him because he remembers how life improved after the co-op brought power to rural Clay County. “It was incredible, like me getting my hearing aids,” he said with a laugh. “Before, you had to get kindling and go to the well to get water every morning. After the power came, all you had to do was flip a switch.”


Looking forward to 2022 mission

Photo by Tim Webb

It was 65 years ago this year that 20-year-old Marilyn McKenzie Esposito boarded a train that took her from Kentucky to basic training at Fort McClellan in Alabama. The third of 10 children who grew up in Greenup County, she was looking for new opportunities and experiences. The U.S. Army did not disappoint.

“It was 1956, and I was anxious to get away but couldn’t afford college,” the Lexington resident said about her decision to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, the women’s branch of the Army. A senior class trip to Washington, D.C., was the furthest she had ever traveled from home.

“This was my first time being away from home, and I was so homesick,” she said about learning to live in a barracks crammed with 71 other young women. But she relished the opportunity to become acquainted with “people from all over,” some who became lifelong friends.

Following 16 weeks of training in Alabama and a brief assignment in Atlanta, Esposito boarded a plane bound for Bremerhaven, Germany, a port city on the North Sea.

“I had never traveled before. This was all a new adventure for me,” she said. “I was excited about going.”

Bremerhaven (Port of Bremen) was the docking point for ships carrying U.S. military personnel and their dependents. Esposito was assigned to the infirmary where arriving and departing passengers stopped for vaccinations and health record checks.

“I was there to greet Elvis,” the veteran said, referring to the famous 1957 arrival of a troopship carrying the entertainer to his European posting.

Esposito remembers her time in Germany fondly. “I loved getting to know the German people and traveling in Europe,” she said.

Bremerhaven is also where she met Anthony Esposito, another soldier assigned to the infirmary who would become her husband. Marilyn and Anthony married shortly after her tour of duty ended in 1959.

Their marriage would produce children and grandchildren. Granddaughter Sophie Johnson, 19, was scheduled to accompany her grandmother as a guardian on the September Honor Flight sponsored by Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives and coordinated by Honor Flight Kentucky. The flight was canceled due to safety concerns with the coronavirus, but HFK hopes to hold the mission in 2022.

Esposito knows a lot has changed in Washington since she was last there in 1954. She’s looking forward to joining the other 71 veterans on the flight to see monuments and other highlights.


West Liberty veteran reflects on service

Photo by Tim Webb

It took years of waiting, but Norvin Thompson of West Liberty will finally be among the military veterans boarding an Honor Flight for a trip to Washington, D.C.

“I had applied so long ago, that I’d almost forgotten about it,” the Army veteran said. “So when they called and said I was going, it was a real surprise.”

Thompson is a longtime member of Licking Valley Rural Electric Cooperative (LVRECC), which was scheduled to provide his one-day, all-expense-paid trip in September. The mission had to be canceled due to safety concerns, but will hopefully take place in 2022.

When the flight occurs, Norvin will join 70 other veterans from Kentucky who served during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War on the flight sponsored by LVRECC and Kentucky’s Touchstone Energy Cooperatives. The mission is coordinated by Honor Flight Kentucky.

Making plans to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington’s National Mall prompts Thompson to think back on his two years of service.

“I served my country proudly, and I’d do it again,” he said. Though he’s proud to call himself “an American boy through and through,” Thompson admits Army life wasn’t fun.

“The sign on the wall said ‘Join the Army and see the world,’ but all the world I saw was from the back of a deuce and a half,” he joked, referring to the 2 ½ ton cargo trucks that moved Army personnel and equipment.

The story about how the Morgan County native landed in the back of one of those trucks began just a few weeks after his marriage to wife Sharon in 1969. He was drafted at age 19.

During boot camp at Fort Knox he was asked what area of work he wanted to pursue. The newlywed’s father-in-law and brother-in-law had both served as Army cooks and encouraged him to do the same. He trained as an executive chef before receiving orders to ship out for Vietnam.

Then the Army changed its mind. On his first wedding anniversary, he boarded a plane headed for Friedberg, Germany. For 12 consecutive months, he participated in field training exercises with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Armor Regiment. In addition to driving tanks and becoming an expert marksman, he was responsible for preparing meals for the hungry soldiers.

“We didn’t have all the conveniences like in a mess hall. We cooked out in the field,” he said, explaining how he prepared meals using portable, gas-fueled equipment.

For his service during the Vietnam War, Thompson was awarded the National Defense Service Medal. His proficiency with firearms earned him the Army’s sharpshooter designation.

The Army cook hung up his apron when his tour of duty was completed. He returned home in July 1971 to meet Shona Sue, his 14-month-old daughter who was born while he was in Europe. He later trained to become a respiratory therapist and worked at the local hospital for more than 35 years.

Since retiring, Thompson has begun expressing his patriotism in prose, which he’d like to share with fellow Honor Flight participants. He hopes his words inspire others to remember the strength, pride, freedom and bravery the American flag represents — as well as those who fought to protect it.


Vietnam veteran looks forward to flight

Photo by Tim Webb

George Atwood says he doesn’t think about Vietnam much anymore. After all, it’s been 50 years since the veteran was stationed on the Mekong River near the Cambodian border.

But when he does recall those days, he remembers the smell of the river, the heat, the rain — and the near-constant work. The Versailles resident was a diesel mechanic assigned to the Navy’s River Patrol Division 86. He repaired the engines of patrol boats sent out to prevent Viet Cong troop and supply movements.

The 70-year-old also remembers returning to the states and being ridiculed and degraded by anti-war protesters at the airport. It was not the reception George imagined when he enlisted at age 20. Memories of that homecoming still sting.

These days, George is looking forward instead of back. He’ll soon join 72 other Kentucky veterans on the upcoming Honor Flight, which could provide a do-over of sorts.

“I’m hoping we have a better homecoming this time around,” he said, referring to the celebration that traditionally concludes the daylong trip to Washington D.C.

Both the departure and the arrival will be sweeter because George will be with his brother, Jerry, an Army veteran. Serving their country was a family affair for the Atwoods. George was the youngest of seven boys, six of whom wore armed forces uniforms.

“Three of my brothers were in the Army, one was in the Air Force and one in the Marines,” he said. Three of the Atwood brothers served in Vietnam.

Two years ago George and Jerry applied for Honor Flight so they could join other Kentucky veterans to view memorials erected in their honor.

“Meeting other veterans is what I’m most looking forward to,” the retired law enforcement officer said. “Doing it with my brother makes it even better.”


WWII veteran reflects on his service time

Though his namesake red hair long ago gave way to a snowy white, Charles “Rusty” Hembree’s memories are crystal-clear. The Lexington resident, who is still practicing law at age 94, takes a moment away from work to reminisce about a boyhood in eastern Tennessee and his wartime service — and a surprising connection between the two.

Rusty was reared by his widowed mother on her family’s farm in the picturesque Tennessee Valley. Despite growing up during the Great Depression, Rusty remembers a happy childhood.

But life for the Hembrees took a drastic turn in 1942. Their land was acquired by the federal government, and they were forced to move to the city.

A year later, Rusty reported for Army boot camp just after his high school graduation.

“There was a war going on, and I wanted to be a part of it,” he said.

He was assigned to the Army’s Air Corps and trained as a bombardier, the person responsible for releasing bombs from Boeing B-29 Superfortress planes.

Rusty was sent to Tinian, a part of the Marianas island chain the Americans seized specifically for staging bomber attacks on Japan. Here, his childhood and military service collided.

“We had no idea,” the veteran said about the first atomic bomb dropped by a B-29 bomber flown out of Tinian. “We were told after the first bomb dropped, but knew nothing before.”

Later, Rusty and some buddies drove to the site where the bomb had been hidden on the island. While others marveled at the site’s massive size, Rusty’s thoughts were elsewhere.

“I was amazed to think I had grown up right where that bomb had been built,” he said. The farm his family had been forced to vacate became the home of the Manhattan Project, the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where the first nuclear bombs were produced.