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One Who Gave For Us-And Paid A Price

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“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
President John F. Kennedy , inaugural address, January 20, 1961.

Military service in our country is now voluntary. It has not always been so. When the one I will tell you about here served, it was not. He volunteered for the Marine Corps in order to have his choice of the services. He served our Nation unselfishly and sacrificed greatly.

He served in America’s most despised war, the Viet Nam War. Many Americans despised him and his comrades for their service, in spite of their sacrifices, their wounds to body, mind and soul. Later he became a professional bird-dog trainer-handler, though he had in fact been a professional trainer since age twelve, as I will explain. He still practices that craft at age seventy-two.

What did he do in his service? He does not often speak of it. I have coaxed his story from him reluctantly.

He is Jim Heckert, Corporal, U.S. Marine Corps, 1966 to 1970, and currently manager of Cedar Grove Plantation, Clarksville, Virginia. His combat duties were as an aviation fire fighter, a Crash Crew Fire Truck Team Leader, at Da Nang Air Base, Viet Nam, for 13 months, 1967-1968. In that time the base was among the hottest war zones in that conflict, and the world’s busiest airport, with around-the-clock taking off and landing of US Air Force and US Marine craft carrying the air war to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. For that reason, it attracted all the fire power the enemy could bring to bear upon it, including powerful Russian-made rockets, mortars and other artillery. Our personnel, aircraft, aviation fuel, bombs and rockets stored there made it a favorite enemy target.

Jim served amid incessant enemy attacks and conflagrations caused by incoming damaged aircraft, or planes sufferIng mechanical failures, not only craft based there but based at other air bases close by and far distant. From injuries sustained there, Jim suffers today complete deafness in his right ear and partial in his left. More tragically, he suffers post traumatic stress disorder. But he carries on.

About to be released from the Marines at Quantico in 1970, he was recruited by fire departments in DC and Fairfax County, Virginia. His Marine training and combat experience made him a prime candidate. He chose Fairfax because his girlfriend Theresa (now his wife of forty nine years) worked there.

Graduating first in his class from Fairfax’s fire school, he got by tradition choice of its fire houses. He chose the one with the most call-outs. Asked why, Jim says, “I guess I was looking for the same Adrenalin rush I got in Viet Nam.”

Standing 6’2” with the a tight end’s build, Jim had a five-inch reach advantage over most men his height. In his 25-man class he was soon singled out by legendary Fire Captain Chester Chinn, also a former Marine, and made leader of a 5-man fire suppression squad and assigned tiller-man on a hook and ladder truck. The tiller-man assignment was earned when Jim put out a vicious fire in a 40’ X 15’ storage room for tenants separated into wire mesh compartments at a garden apartment complex.

“After that fire, attitudes seemed to change at the fire house and I felt accepted into the brotherhood. The tiller-man job was fortuitous for another reason-I did not know the streets of Fairfax County at all and it was growing like mad. As tiller-man, I just followed along,” Jim says with a smile. But tiller-man required much more than steering from the rear, it meant leading aerial rescue from the extended ladders, climbing up and going in to burning structures to save lives.

At Fairfax County, Jim was recognized for three personal life-saving rescues at great personal risk. One involved a hurricane. An elderly couple was trapped in their Cadillac that had been swept into a flash flood. Jim dove into the water tied by rope held by his crew and swam to the car, about to be submerged by the rising water. He kicked in a window, removed the wife and swam her to safety. Then he went back for the man, quite elderly and obese. Jim managed to save him.

Jim moved home to Pennsylvania after three years service at Fairfax and enrolled in Harrisburg’s fire school. Again he finished first in his class and chose its busiest firehouse , in the heart of a ghetto.

Jim had moved to be near the place where he’d grown up, in Pennsylvania’s farmland where pheasants were then plentiful. Starting at age twelve, he’d trained bird dogs for pay before and after school, and soon he was training again on days off from the fire house. He and Theresa, who’d been dating since before his Marine enlistment, were soon married.

On Harrisburg’s Apricot Street, Jim’s team responded to a Two Alarm night fire just a minute from his fire house.

“I remember it in every detail. A tenement duplex was in full blaze. A grandmother was standing at the front door, screaming that her two-year-old grandson was in a second floor bedroom. Flames were lapping out the bedroom window. In protective gear, I went up the stairs for the child, barely able to make it through the heat and smoke. The room was in full blaze, walls and ceiling, and filled with dense smoke. I dropped to the floor, trying to locate the child’s crib. I found the crib and turned it over to get the child on the floor where the temperature was lower and smoke less dense. At that moment a pump truck crew made a critical error, directing water through the window. It instantly turned to steam, burning me severely. Reacting to the burns, I hit my head on a wall and knocked off my helmet, exposing my ears and neck. (My mask thankfully still protected my face). My comrade Jay McKelvey arrived in the room and took the child in his arms. I somehow crawled from the room through the smoke and made it down the burning stairs and out to the street. There I put my head and hands and ears under water from a leaking fire hose connection , trying desperately to ease the pain from my burns. I was taken to a hospital and soon my face and head were wrapped in bandages.

“We soon learned the child had died of smoke inhalation before we arrived at the fire. Teresa and I had a daughter the same age, and I was anguished by the horrible death of the little boy.

“That fire was the beginning of the end of my fire-fighting career. For the first time, I began to doubt my invincibility as a fire fighter. Six months later I resigned from the Harrisburg Fire Department.”

Of his time in Viet Nam, Jim told me this of his service at Da Nang Airport.

“The base had two parallel ten thousand foot runways, north to south. The bomb and munitions dump lay on the Marine Corps side of the runways, about two hundred yards to the side and starting six thousand feet along their length, continuing to about two thousand feet from their end. Just north of the base lay Da Nang Bay, just south a mine field of ours to keep out the enemy.

“There were about 150 aircraft assigned to the base with 50 or 60 being serviced or fueled or armed at all times. Our crash truck teams worked constantly beside them.

“Unlike most US forces in Viet Nam, we were there to save lives, not take them. The aircraft traffic was constant, day and night. And enemy efforts to kill us and shut us down were constant too.

“ The summer of 1967 was particularly fierce. On July 8 a B-52 Stratofortress, based on Guam, on a mission to bomb the A Shau Valley, suffered electrical system failure and lost most of its hydraulics, including control of its flaps. Its commander decided to attempt a landing at Da Nang without flaps. The B-52 touched down 1,000 yards beyond the runway’s start, leaving insufficient distance to brake on the runway. It reached the end rolling at 100 knots, hit a drainage ditch and our own land mines beyond, and exploded. Six were aboard; only the tail gunner, the only enlisted man, survived. Our crew cut him out just before fire would have taken him as it had the five others, the commander, a Major, and four Captains.

“ When the tail gunner was safe we got word by radio that we had driven through a mine field to reach the B-52. We pulled out of the heat just enough not to be burned, then waited until an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team that had also installed the mines could come lead us out.

“On July 15, we lost eight dear friends on three crash truck crews destroyed in a horrific attack by the Viet Cong with 83 122mm and 140mm Russian-made rockets. The rockets set off the bomb dump, releasing a mushroom cloud like an atomic bomb. Shrapnel from the explosion fell on every inch of the runways and flattened every vehicle tire that afterward moved on the base. One hundred seventy five were wounded by the attack and resulting explosions. Ten aircraft were destroyed and sixty damaged. It was the loudest explosion I have ever heard.

“Just before the explosion, our Gunner (Warrant Officer Roberts of Clifton, New Jersey) had radioed, ‘Get the men under the trucks’. I questioned the order because our mission was to get to the action, put out fires and save lives. But that order saved many lives. Absent it, falling shrapnel would have killed many. A piece the size of a cell phone fell on the hood of my crash truck and pierced it. Warrant Officer Roberts received a Bronze Star and my crew members and I received the Navy Commendation with Combat V for that action.

“Earlier, on March 23, 1967, a ground controller error allowed a just-landed Lockheed C-141 Stratolifter to cross on an active runway and collided with a taking off bomb-loaded US Marine A-6 attack fighter, killing 5 of 6 on the Stratolifter. The two Marines in the A-6 miraculously survived uninjured.”

Jim’s PTSD emerged from service at Da Nang Airport, and grew while he served in the fire departments of Fairfax and Harrisburg, where he continued by choice his combat experience. Finally, he sought escape from his feelings of survivor’s guilt through bird dog training, a calling he had pursued as avocation since age twelve.

“I likely wouldn’t still be here if it were not for the dogs,” Jim says in all seriousness. While telling me this, Jim was sitting in a kennel run at Cedar Grove Plantation holding Buck, Will Pannill’s favorite setter, dying of cancer. Jim is a caring and sentimental man, in the best way.

“There was something about the dogs that I needed,” Jim says. He still finds solace with them today, fifty years after Da Nang Airport.

Soon after leaving firefighting, Jim was training bird dogs on Dixie Plantation, for Gene Brown on the Georgia side and Miss Geraldine on the Florida.

“I had eighteen thousand acres to work on, so in the morning I would check the wind direction to decide which side to start from and work toward the other. It was heaven,” Jim says.

Later Jim worked for Butch Houston on Shadow Oak Plantation and managed Wiregrass Plantation at Albany for Tom and Iris Vail of Cleveland Plain Dealer fame.

“That was mule wagon and horseback hunting, observing all the traditions. The Vails were great to work for, my crew was great too,” Jim says.

Jim worked for a time with Dr. Tom Flanagan of Grouse Ridge Kennels in New York and with Clair Gross in Pennsylvania, a successful shooting dog pro who shared Jim’s hearing difficulties.

Later Jim was drawn by the independence afforded by for-the-public field trial handling and in that role won many American Field stakes and AKC championships, including the New England Futurity and forty other placements with pointer Mateus for David O’Conner of Tyler, Texas and the AKC All-Breed National Gun Dog Championship twice. He won several Gordon Setter National Championships for patron Gwynne McDevett of Philadelphia, granddaughter of auto-pioneer Walter Chrysler and daughter of a West Point football hero, legendary drop-kicker Edward Garbisch who was also a co-founder of Clorox Corporation.
I met Jim when he was winter training on Cloverdale Farm at Danville, Virginia and handling dogs for my lifelong friends Fred Leggett and Bill and Carolyn Anderson. They loved visiting Jim’s summer training grounds at Choteau, Montana. Fortuitously, when my friend and client Will Pannill acquired Cedar Grove Plantation at Clarksville, Virginia with the goal to develop it as a premier private quail preserve, Jim was available to manage it, and Jim has forged a strong bond with the Pannill family, leading extensive habitat development efforts there.

Jim is one of my dearest friends and heroes. He and his comrades in arms from Viet Nam and prior and subsequent conflicts deserve the thanks of all Americans.


About the Author

Tom Word
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Tom Word is a lawyer who represents individuals about managing their assets and for amusement writes fiction and non-fiction about bird dogs and humans obsessed with them.


About the Artist

Leah Brigham
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After graduating from Millersville University of Pennsylvania with a Bachelors of Science in Art Education, Leah began teaching Art to inner city Middle School students in Houston and later Dallas, TX. Leah has shared with her students her passion for art and nature. This passion has sustained her and continued throughout her life in the form of painting and drawing.

Leah was introduced to American Field Horseback Field Trails and has been able to experience the excitement of seeing her own dog, competing for the National Championship at Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, TN ...standing on point, head and tail held high. This has inspired her to create works of art depicting dogs and the wildlife associated with the sport and hunting.

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