Vietnam War veterans honored during ceremony at AF Memorial

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Hailey Haux
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs Command Information
More than 100 service members, civilians and veterans braved the cold and icy weather to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action during the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War commemoration ceremony and wreath-laying March 2, at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

The color guard posted the colors, the national anthem was sung and an invocation was given to those watching closely to pay their respects.

“I don’t believe there is any better place to honor these Airmen than right here, looking at this beautiful memorial, looking over the Pentagon, to our great nation’s capital,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III.

This date commemorates the beginning of the Operation Rolling Thunder bombing campaign in 1965, where joint-service aircraft bombed targets throughout North Vietnam. The campaign resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 U.S aircraft and cost North Vietnam more than half of its bridges, virtually all of its petroleum storage facilities and nearly two-thirds of its power generating plants.

March 2 also marks the 50th anniversary of retired Lt. Col. Hayden J. Lockhart, who took part in Operation Rolling Thunder, becoming the first Air Force POW. Flying the F-100 Super Sabre, Lockhart was shot down and forced to eject from his aircraft over North Vietnam. Lockhart was released on February 12, 1973, after spending 2,905 days in captivity.

“I remember watching the TV as the first group of POWs returned to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in February of 1973,” Welsh recalled. “I remember a lot of things about that coverage. I remember the commentators talking way too much. I remember watching the POWs coming down the steps of the C-141 one at a time … I remember how I cried watching the heroes become reunited with their family members.”

For one family, they would not learn of their father’s sacrifice for years to come.

“It wasn’t until 1976 that we learned that our father was shot down, captured and died of his injuries shortly after,” said Maureen Kozak, daughter of Col. Kelly Cook, an F-4 Phantom pilot who was killed in action. Representing her entire family, Kozak said, “I am very proud of my father and I know he was proud to serve our country. It was an honor to be here with General Welsh representing the Air Force. It was a beautiful day to see the wreath presented at this beautiful memorial.”

As the ceremony came to a close and the sound of taps filled the air, Welsh had one small request, “This is a very solemn occasion, but it’s also a proud celebration because we share the heritage of the great Americans we honor today. Sometime today, write their motto on a small piece of paper, and put it in your wallet or in your purse. And every time you notice it in the future, take it out, unfold it and read the words: 'Return with honor.' Then put it back, and quietly thank the heroes we honor today for doing exactly that, and recommit yourself to making those great airmen as proud of us as we are of them."

This was the first Headquarters Air Force event in support of the 50th Vietnam War Commemorative Partner Program. The multi-year campaign aims to thank and honor the veterans of the Vietnam War for their sacrifice and service and pay tribute to the contributions of their families.

(Editor’s note: Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr. contributed to the article)