Welcome home, brother

By on May 23, 2018

Local educator Lincoln Hokenbrough has a serious interest in the military. You could say it’s in his blood.

In 2013, he wrote a book on his grandfather’s service during World War II. And more recently, it was Ken Burns’ documentary on the Vietnam War which re-ignited his interest in the armed forces.

“My father served in Vietnam, and my grandfather was a World War II vet,” he says. “Many of them didn’t talk about the war or seek recognition.” But on May 21, Hokenbrough organized a major event at Lititz Christian School where he teaches &tstr; a means to give back to those who served during this conflict in our country’s history. Taking several months to plan, the program gathered students, members of the public, and veterans alike all for one special afternoon.

The first part of the program was a question and answer session with eight area Vietnam vets. After each guest was introduced, they discussed their role in the war, where they were stationed, and what it was like to serve.

The second portion of the day included a special recognition ceremony hosted by Ken Smith, who served as the master of ceremonies. A Vietnam war era pilot, Smith has spent the last several years working for the Vet-to-Vet Program, an effort championed by the National Hospice Organization which honors as well as spends quality time with dying vets.

“As a Vet-to-Vet volunteer, I visit numerous veterans each week, offering friendship as well as fellowship as they approach the end of their lives,” Smith said. “Each time I’m assigned a patient, I make arrangements with his/her primary caregiver to visit, and present the patient with a small veteran’s pin and a certificate of appreciation for their sacrifice and service.” These special programs would become known as “pinning ceremonies,” and when Smith takes part, he does his best to make it especially meaningful to the veteran by tailoring the presentation and describing a battle that they had been in, or a ship that they had served on.

As time went on and the program grew, Smith was asked to mentor new volunteers. Then, in 2016, he was given the Heart of Hospice Award for his efforts with this program. With that recognition came several requests to speak at various hospice fundraising events. Smith enlisted in the U.S. Navy flight program with the express intention of going to Vietnam; however the war ended before he finished flight school. He continued to serve for 20 years after the war, building an impressive resume of service along the way.

“I will tell you that I flew Oliver North around in Central America during the Iran-Contra Affair, I was in the Invasion of Grenada, I was aboard the USS Eisenhower for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, and I flew in Operation Desert Storm.”

In 2010, he and his wife Deb would retire to Lancaster. A short time later, he began giving back to those who served. Among those honored at Lititz Christian was John Hildebrand. A member of the United States Marine Corps for four years, during the war, he was a sergeant who was involved with helicopter squadron HMM-165.

Then and now: John Hildebrand. When the Vietnam War was in its last hours, his unit brought out hundreds of refugees, as well as Ambassador Graham Martin from the American Embassy in Saigon.

“I was part of Operation Frequent Wind in April 1975 aboard the USS Dubuque LPD,” Hildebrand said. “My unit was part of the largest air evacuation in military history, and my function was to serve as a crew member aboard a CH-46 as its .50 cal. door gunner to provide support if needed.”

“Our squadron did lose one helicopter during the evacuations when it crashed into the South China Sea. Two crew members survived but not the pilots. I believe they were the last men to die in Vietnam.”

“The war was in its last hours and our unit brought out hundreds of refugees including Ambassador Martin from the American Embassy in Saigon,” he added. “I was moved by the people attempting to get out of Saigon during these last hours. The faces kind of stayed with me over the years.”

Discharged in 1976, he would enroll at Millersville University, majoring in history. Today, he teaches at Lancaster County Christian School.

“Education seemed to fit well for me because I was always telling people stories of history and my service time,” he said. From 1968 to 1970, Harold Kramer served as a sniper in the US Army. Currently, he is the co-founder and chairman of Listrak in Lititz.

“It was one of the best things to happen to me,” he said of his time serving his country. “I learned an awful lot about how to survive and how to set my moral compass.”

“It’s a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice in order to serve our country,” Smith added. “It takes a veteran to understand another veteran. Every day, people say ‘thank you for your service’ and they sincerely mean it; but to our vets, it misses the mark. It would be better to say, ‘thank you for your sacrifices.”

And what better way to thank the eight veterans in attendance that day than to do what Smith does best–at the conclusion of the program, he recognized each veteran that was present with a special pin and certificate of appreciation. Those honored in addition to Kramer and Hildebrand were Richard Mellott, Charles Sauder, Stephen Hughes, Clifford Shenk, Richard A. Mowery, Jr., and Thomas Nguyen.

           Guest speaker Ken Smith affixes a pin of appreciation on the lapel of Charlie Sauder.

“This program was a chance for us to recognize them,” Hokenbrough said. “It brings their sacrifice to light, as many never got the ceremony they deserved.”

Smith agrees.

“Our returning vets were treated horribly,” he said. “They were cursed, spit upon, and called baby killers. To them, I always say ‘Welcome home brother. It’s good to have you back where you belong.’”

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423. 

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