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The Daily



07-21-03: The sky's really the limit for this reunion

173rd Airborne jumps again in Montezuma

The Daily Standard
    MONTEZUMA - They came, they saw, they conquered ... again.       Members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade once again saw a challenge and took it, this time at Lakefield Airport in Montezuma where they held a reunion in the sky, so to speak.
    Dozens of the retired military men flew toward the heavens before free-falling with their children, cousins and friends during the weekend as an anniversary jump 35 years after the 173rd's massive parachute jump during the Vietnam War.
    The group parked their campers and trucks in an army-style perimeter near a hangar where they built a campfire and stoked embers as well as memories.
    "This is our first 'Campout-Jump' and it's already on the calendar for next year," said Jim Haynes, president of the Midwest Chapter XVII of the Society of the 173rd Brigade.
    Some members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade will be together again Aug. 3 when they serve as color guards in the Coldwater Community Picnic parade.
    For most of the men, now in their mid 50s, it has been more than three decades since they jumped from an airplane with a parachute strapped to their back. So it was back to the drawing board for some intense training before Saturday's jump.
    "OK, show me how you hit the ground," said skydiving instructor Jim Schwartz as he watched the trainees jump one after another from a raised platform.
    Later, Schwartz, a member of the Grand Lake Skydivers, tried unsuccessfully to line up the sky soldiers for simulated falling formations.
    The command, "Fall in," finally got the former soldiers' attention.
    The soldiers, some wearing army fatigues, others with military berets and street clothes, came from as far away as Montana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania to spend a hot, dry weekend in Mercer County.
    "The Herd," is the name the tightly-knit brigade calls themselves. They proudly boast of being the only unit to parachute into Vietnam in 1967 during Operation Junction City.
     One of the 173rd, Carl Peterson, 52, of Winamac, Ind., brought along his cousin, Donna Walker of Bunker Hill, Ind., to join him in the jump. Many of those in attendance, like Walker, were nervous, first-time skydivers.
   "She was just going to come along and watch," said Peterson who made his last jump about 30 years ago at Fort Campbell, Ky.
    His cousin looked calm and cool as the "students" watched one of the area's Grand Lake Skydivers land gracefully near an airport runway.
    "I told him I always wanted to jump and I'm not getting any younger," said Walker smiling. "This is going to be so cool, as long as nothing malfunctions."
    During a break from the seven hours of training, Walker admitted she was afraid of heights. "I'm 6-foot (tall) and afraid of heights, go figure," said the slim brunette.
    The idea for the jump erupted from talk during one of the 173rd's annual get-togethers last year, said Haynes, 54, of Whitehall.
    "We do a lot of family-oriented things throughout the year," he said. "Our wives, kids, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters - they all come. We want them to be involved, to know of our legacy."
    Haynes, like the other members, talks passionately about the history the vets lived as much younger men. Without hesitation, he spouts off dates and places of their activities in Vietnam, but rarely talks about the details. It's too emotional, still too close to his heart and mind.
    "When we as a brotherhood of the 173rd get together, we never talk about the war that much 'cause we know what each one of us had to do to preserve the rights of freedom for our country," Haynes said.
    The 173rd is one of the most highly decorated units of the Armed Forces and has been deactivated and reactivated several times. The brigade, now made up of a younger set of soldiers, parachuted into Iraq this year. "A new battle and new brothers. We couldn't be any prouder," Haynes added.
    Haynes said he didn't always desire to reunite with his former brigade following his 21 years, 10 months and 13 days in the army. But something told him he had to do it, to keep the memory of his lost buddies alive.
    "For the guys who didn't make it, what better legacy could we leave them than to meet and carry on the spirit of the 173rd," Haynes said. "A part of all our lives was left in 'Nam."


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