Much has changed on Navy ships over the centuries – sail converted to steam, steel replaced wood, and missiles supplemented guns, just to name a few. Yet with all these changes, fundamental truths remain. Navy ships carry the U.S. flag to the four corners of the globe, serving as ambassadors in the countries they visit and as strong reminders of U.S. military power and resolve. Navy ships also require a team of special people pulling together to accomplish the ship’s mission, enduring the perils of the sea, the long separations from family, and the risks associated with war. Captain Jack E. Helmann, U.S. Navy (Retired), knows these challenges all too well, having served on five Navy destroyers over the course of his twenty-four-year Navy career. He also knows the strains and responsibilities of command, having been the Commanding Officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Berkeley (DDG-15) for over two years. This is his story.
Voices To Veterans
Let’s help veterans tell their stories. Maybe they worked in the mess halls serving chow, or helped load ordnance onto jets waiting their turn to launch on combat missions, or maybe they had to watch their friends get hit in an ambush or a firefight in a rice paddy in Vietnam. It’s time we hear what they have to say!
If you are a veteran, or you know a veteran you’d like to have considered, send an email to [email protected] with the name of the veteran, a short summary of his or her story, and a picture of the veteran in uniform if you have it. I’ll then select veterans from the nominations I receive and write-up their stories for the Voices to Veterans Spotlight. Every veteran whose story I feature will receive a free signed copy of my latest Steve Stilwell legal thriller, Sapphire Pavilion, which is dedicated to “Wounded Warriors and Vietnam War veterans, especially those heroes still waiting to come home.”
It’s an age-old question, does art reflect life or does life reflect art? In the case of Specialist Eric Ferguson, U.S. Army, one would have to say the latter. Eric has always drawn inspiration from the stories and larger-than-life heroes depicted on the silver screen. They inspired him to join the Army and be bold when choosing his warfare branch. They gave him insight and strength to deal with the difficult situations he faced in training and while part of the Operation Desert Storm mobile assault force in Iraq. Finally, they helped him understand and deal with the Gulf War’s aftermath. Now it is time for Eric’s story to do the same for others. This is his story.
It takes a special person to endure a long career in the military. Wartime deployments, long family separations with missed birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays, and the strain of command compete against the strong sense of duty, camaraderie, and public service officers feel as they decide whether to continue in the military or leave to pursue a civilian career. Colonel Tom Thompson, U.S. Army (Retired), experienced all these factors and more as he navigated his twenty-six-year career in the Army that included two combat deployments to Vietnam. Throughout it all, he balanced duty and family as best he could to make both sides win. This is his story.
When people think of Navy lawyers, the image of courtrooms and court-martials comes to mind, conjured up from movies like The Caine Mutiny and A Few Good Men. Although those images are accurate as far as they go, they paint but a small part of the picture. No career illustrates that better than that of Commander Tom Jones, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired). Tom left the courtroom behind early in his career to serve with the Navy SEALs in Iraq, charting the course for all future Navy attorneys embedded with special operations units. Where others might see roadblocks, Tom saw opportunities. Throughout his distinguished twenty-year Navy career, he never avoided challenges – he embraced them. This is his story.
Major Sandy Richardson, U.S. Air Force (Retired) – From Dream to Reality, Flying with the Air Force for 20 Years
Some people dream and that is as far as it goes. Others follow through and take action, always keeping their eyes on the ultimate objective. Ever since Major Sandy Richardson, U.S. Air Force, was a boy with his father watching planes take off and land in Louisiana, he dreamed of becoming a pilot. Now he can look back at his fifty-year career of flying and training others to fly and say with pride, “I lived my dream.” This is his story.
Lieutenant Commander Alfred “Ski” Sokolowski, U.S. Navy (Retired), has experienced much over the last ninety-nine years. He had a front row seat in World War II as his ships plowed the North Atlantic, protecting convoys from German submarines. He fought on a destroyer in the Pacific, helping recapture islands lost to Japan at the start of the war, and then joined the fight again just five years later in the Korean War sailing off the coast of North Korea. As if that wasn’t enough, he took on the dangerous job of explosive ordnance disposal and managed weapons logistics in the western Pacific. He didn’t just watch U.S. history from a distance—he lived it over the course of thirty years. This is his story.
The naval aviator training pipeline is grueling. It takes months of study to learn the basics of flying. It takes strength of body and mind to withstand the physical and mental strains of landing a plane on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier at sea. Most of all, it takes courage, to launch from a ship in the middle of the ocean in search of a target with the hope of accomplishing the mission and returning home safely. Few have what it takes to even try to meet naval aviation’s high standards and even fewer succeed. At the height of World War II, with the naval war against Japan raging in the Pacific, Lieutenant Commander Joe Dwigans, U.S. Navy (Retired), raised his hand and said I can do it. This is his story.
Sometimes people are presented with options having life changing consequences. Such was the case with Sergeant Russell J. Wright, U.S. Army, when he received his draft notice in May of 1970. With the war in Vietnam winding down and protestors clamoring for draftees to flee to Canada, Russ could have evaded the draft and kept himself safe from a war that had already killed tens of thousands of Americans. Instead, he chose to do his duty and report for service because he knew it was the right thing to do. Now, looking back on his service in the jungles and rice paddies of South Vietnam over fifty years later, Russ is proud of his service and would do it all again. This is his story.
Master Chief Petty Officer Donald Gohman, U.S. Navy (Retired) – Keeping the Navy Flying During Three Wars
Master Chief Petty Officer Donald Gohman, U.S. Navy (Retired) is a humble man. When we began to talk, he told me his career was routine and he didn’t think he’d done anything special. Then he told me about how he helped keep planes flying from Henderson Field during the six-month long battle for Guadalcanal during World War II and kept carrier aircraft in fighting shape for missions over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Needless to say, I was spellbound. Weaving in and out of peacetime and war, Don’s career is a thirty-year American history lesson taught at the individual level. I could not get enough of it, and I think you will share the same view. This is his story.
It’s easy to take for granted the freedoms we have because we live in a country isolated from its adversaries by two vast oceans. As a result, most of us live our lives unconcerned with the possibility of an invading foreign army. Many U.S. allies do not enjoy the same luxury, as they find themselves bordered by authoritarian regimes ready to cross their borders at the first sign of weakness. The U.S. has supported its allies since the end of World War II by sending forces to stand with them against would-be aggressors. Sergeant Thomas Lucken, U.S. Army, was one of those soldiers called to hold the line during the Cold War by spending over thirteen years overseas in South Korea and Germany as a Cavalry Scout. This is his story.