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War Stories from Five Veterans
Comments () | Published June 1, 2008
A door gunner on Army helicopters in Vietnam, Ed Gantt later joined the Navy and helped capture the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

Years later, Wiedhahn—whose business, Military Historic Tours, takes thousands of vets and their families back to the battlefields—returned to the ridge where he’d been wounded. Pusan, a ruin when he’d left it in 1950, was now a dazzling city of 4 million.

“You stand there on the hill and wonder why he got killed and you didn’t,” Wiedhahn says. “But one of the reasons you live is so you can give something back.”

Earning His Wings

Ed Gantt paces in front of a dozen students at Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. Gantt’s Junior ROTC class has been asked to perform color-guard duty at Andrews Air Force Base on Saturday.

“Is there anyone willing to take this responsibility?” he says, his wrinkled hands clasped behind him. The Navy captain is dressed as he has been for 40 years, in uniform. He turns and faces his students, who eye one another and the clock.

“Nobody?” Gantt says. “I thought we had a bunch of people who wanted to be leaders. Getting out of bed on a Saturday morning to do something worthwhile—now, that’s leadership.”

It was on a Saturday in 1969 at an Army recruitment station in DC that Gantt boarded a bus for Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The Prince George’s County native, who grew up scraping pennies together to buy model airplanes, was hooked by the promise that he’d be a pilot shortly after his 18th birthday.

At boot camp, Gantt suffered through pushups and indignities to try to earn his wings. When assigned to lead draftees older than he was, he was uncomfortable and gave up the responsibility—only to have his drill sergeant punish him by making him work late into the night digging a coffin-size ditch in the pine woods.

By January 1970, he was a door gunner on a Chinook helicopter flying missions in Vietnam. To Gantt, soaring over dark waters in the Mekong Delta with the doors off was like speeding down a country road in a sports car with the windows down.

By day, he fired a machine gun into the jungle, clearing the way for troops to resupply American and South Vietnamese forces. By night, he bunked with a Kentuckian who hummed Merle Haggard songs and a fellow gunner who’d been in a shootout with Los Angeles cops. This was Vietnam, and it was also his first real taste of America.

Returning from his year’s tour, Gantt enrolled at Howard University, where he played football. But the pull of flying planes was too strong. He entered the Navy to fly carrier-based jets as a copilot, and in 1985 he helped capture the hijackers of the Achille Lauro cruise ship.

Gantt went on to command the Navy’s boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, but in 2004 he returned to Prince George’s County to teach. Teenagers are more unruly than midshipmen, and the 57-year-old wonders if he’s making a difference in their lives. But nothing shakes him of his faith in the military to teach responsibility.

“Now, is there anyone who wants to take this color-guard duty?” Gantt asks again.

One by one, hands rise.

Mayday!

In November 1991, dark clouds drifted across the Iraqi desert near Basra where William Andrews was flying his fighter jet, preparing to drop cluster bombs.

Operation Desert Storm had taken a toll on Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, which had set fire to oil wells in its retreat from Kuwait. Andrews found a hole in the clouds and dipped through.

Three days earlier, Andrews had helped rescue a team of American special forces from an advancing Iraqi platoon. The Iraqis had closed to within a hundred yards of the Americans, and a stray bomb could have killed his compatriots. Back at base, Andrews and fellow airmen celebrated with backslaps and cold beer when they learned they’d saved the soldiers. 

Now in the sky again, Andrews turned at a right angle to find his targets. A moment later, a blast from the ground sent his plane spinning out of control. Andrews yanked the ejection handle below his seat and in a deafening roar was launched into the air.

Floating above the battlefield, he radioed, “Mayday! Mayday!” He heard machine-gun fire and tried to steer his parachute downwind from Iraqi troops but ran out of time. He slammed into the hard sand. In the pool of his deflated parachute, he clutched his right leg. It was broken.

Sitting up, Andrews saw Iraqis with AK-47s running toward him. An Iraqi solider nearby readied a missile launcher, aiming at an American F16 flying overhead. Andrews snatched up his radio. Just as the missile blasted, he yelled into his handset, “Break right!” The plane veered. The missile missed.

Enemy bullets sleeted the sand around Andrews. He thrust his hands into the air in surrender.

During the chaos of a ground action that night, Andrews crawled away from his captors and hid in a bunker. But an Iraqi patrol found him at dawn and sent him to Baghdad, where he was interrogated and tortured.

A week later, a Red Cross plane carried Andrews and other prisoners away, with F15s at each wing. “It was like a  bear hug,” says Andrews, who now teaches at the National Defense University’s War College in DC. “Like a big embrace from a loved one.”

At Andrews Air Force Base, he underwent surgery on his leg. When he awoke in the recovery room, he flashed back to the torture in Baghdad.

“I just have one question,” he asked the nurses. “Is this the United States?”

They said, “Yes.” He passed out, a smile on his face.

"We'll Never Forget What You Said"

Three months after US forces captured Saddam Hussein, Army medic Kate Norley and her security detail walked down debris-littered streets toward the University of Baghdad, where she was to meet with eight Iraqi women, students in a veterinary class. Hussein’s face was everywhere—on billboards, the sides of buildings, store windows.

The women, who still feared the fallen dictator, wanted to know everything about 20-year-old Norley: What is it like to be free? they asked. To have a president who doesn’t rape and pillage? What can we do?

Norley encouraged them to help rebuild Iraq, pleaded with them not to lose hope. She took a picture with them, her blond hair brilliant among the dark burkas.

Norley had enlisted days after 9/11. She’d planned on spending a year traveling after she graduated from Alexandria’s Episcopal High School, but as she watched the smoke rising from the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, she knew she’d found her calling.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 06/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles