GALLATIN, Tennessee – The Memorial Day ceremony held at Sumner County Veterans Park featured Rep. Courtney Rogers (R-Goodlettsville), a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel and Tennessee Air National Guard member, as the keynote speaker during its midday event sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) Chapter 240 and Associates of Vietnam Veterans.
A few days prior, Rep. Rogers sent a personal email message about the Memorial Day event, to which she was invited to tell the story about her father. It was the first time she was able to tell as much of his story, her email stated, only recently learning more, as she reminded her supporters that her father flew HMX-1, also known as Marine I, for three U.S. Presidents and was later killed in Vietnam.
Among the several hundred attendees, many of whom were military veterans, a number mentioned that it was Rogers’ email that inspired them to come out to the event despite the heat, humidity and threat of rain.
The welcome was delivered by VVA Chapter 240 President Dave Peterson, followed by an opening prayer from the Chaplin. The National Anthem, sung by Gold Star mother Cathy Mullin, followed the Presentation of Colors. Recognition of Gold Star families was headed by Associates of Vietnam Veterans Chapter President Ann Rice with a presentation of a single yellow rose, one of which was given to Rep. Courtney Rogers.
Brief remarks were made by Sumner County Executive Anthony Holt and City of Gallatin Mayor Paige Brown. State Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster), on stage beside fellow Sumner County Representative Rogers, demonstrated her vocal talent leading attendees with “God Bless America.”
Retired Army Captain and songwriter Carl Conge flew in from Rochester, New York to introduce Dave Gibson, there to sing Conge’s Vietnam-themed “These Days,” which Gibson followed up with a song he wrote that was recorded by Joe Diffie.
After spontaneously adding at the podium that it was the greatest honor of her life to be able to tell the story of her father, Rogers used her education, military background and other experiences to convey a perspective on the uniqueness of the U.S. military in the world. “We do not take an oath to protect or defend a landmass or territory – neither do we take an oath to serve any individual, as other militaries do.” Rogers continued,
Our oath is taken to defend an ideal – as defined in the Declaration of Independence – and as protected by our Constitution. The belief that ‘All men are created equal – given certain unalienable rights by their Creator.’ Rights over which no man, no party, no government, nor any generation has authority.
Reflecting on the essence of Memorial Day, Rogers reminded, “That ideal is greater than any of us, and it is important to remember those that fought and died to uphold it.” She encouraged, “We need to pass this knowledge to our children, to give them a foundation and direction to follow, otherwise, as we are already seeing, they will be left alone, floating at random, to act and react, only responding to fear, emotions or coercion.”
Rogers is proud of her father, who flew Marine I for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson and served three tours in Vietnam, where he was killed on July 28, 1968. After mentioning the date, Rogers paused to regain her composure as many were also seen wiping a tear, while Rogers joked that “it must be you,” because she had practiced a thousand times in front of a mirror.
Since she was just 9 years old when her father died, and her grandparents also passed when she was young, Rogers has but a few childhood recollections.
After sharing touching personal memories of life with her father, Rogers, for the first time, told some details of her father’s military experience. Through a series of unlikely encounters, most of which occurred over the past year, Rogers has been able to piece together more of the story of her father’s final mission.
During a combat supply mission, a fire broke out on his helicopter. Faced with the choice of landing in “an ammo dump, a small friendly village with the only well, or a rice paddy,” in an effort to protect others he opted for the rice paddy. Rogers explained that, “As he was trying to reach the rice paddy, there was an explosion” and that “witnesses say that the fuselage of the Jolly Green broke in half about 300 feet above ground.”
The last gift her father gave her before leaving for his final tour, a Pomeranian puppy named Nicki, about six months later became a source of great comfort to Rogers.
Bringing her talk to a conclusion, Rogers came back to the point she made at the beginning telling the surviving veterans, “It took me 50 years to get this much of his story. Don’t leave chance as the source for your families to learn yours.”
Alluding to the current state of education, particularly as it relates to the history of our country and its founding, Rogers implored, “Help your families understand your contributions and the significance of your service. History books to do not tell these stories – sometimes they don’t even tell the truth.”
Acknowledging the challenge of that process, “I know that it may be difficult to resurrect memories you’ve left behind; I have my own wartime ghosts,” said Rogers. But, always one to end on inspiring note, Rogers concluded, “But to defend liberty, we must keep the truth alive and your words can serve to do so long after we all are gone. God bless you and God Bless America. Thank you.”
The full text of Rep. Courtney Rogers speech as provided to The Tennessee Star can be read here:
Good morning and thank you so much for putting this program together and for allowing me to participate. It means a great deal to me that our fallen and their families are both honored and remembered. Thank you families and veterans for being here. Today I will share a story very dear to me.
But first, whenever I am asked to talk about our military, I deliver a specific message. I remind our people how unique our United States military is in the world. We do not take an oath to protect or defend a landmass or territory – neither do we take an oath to serve any individual, as other militaries do. Our oath is taken to defend an ideal – as defined in the Declaration of Independence – and as protected by our Constitution. The belief that ‘All men are created equal – given certain unalienable rights by their Creator.’ Rights over which no man, no party, no government, nor any generation has authority.
That ideal is greater than any of us and it is important to remember those that fought and died to uphold it. If we forget their stories we risk forgetting the very purpose of this country – created so that a nation of free people can live through mutual consent, without a king, without a dictator, or without a privileged ruling class at any level of government.
We need to pass this knowledge to our children, to give them a foundation and direction to follow, otherwise as we are already seeing, they will be left alone, floating at random, to act and react, only response to fear, emotions, or coercion.
Memorial Day is a time to reflect on my father, though to tell you the truth, he is always with me. Many know that I am a Marine brat, that my father flew Marine I, also known as HMX-1 for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson and that he served three tours in Vietnam. He was killed during his third tour on July 28th, 1968, 3 miles from the Da Nang Vortac along the 270-degree radial. That is all they know, because other than a few childhood memories, it was all that I knew, until last year. Today is the first time that I will share the rest of that story (actually I thought I did for the first time last year at Park Place, but I have since learned even more). I was 9 when we lost my father – both of his parents died when I was young – so I wasn’t able to learn about him through them. Most of what I have learned about his younger days, I’ve learned in the past year – from friends of his that I recently met.
Maj Ralph Marion Dryden Jr. was born Jan 14th, 1933, in Princess Anne, Maryland, a small town on the Eastern Shore that I have visited. I remember the town had a tiny main street with a small A&P Grocery store and a mechanic’s garage with one of those old Coke machines where you could get the small glass bottles of Coke. That was where Dad grew up. When he was young, I think in middle school, he nearly died from rheumatic fever. I didn’t know that until this Christmas. A childhood friend (Barry Boston) that I had not seen or heard from in 50 years was researching another Vietnam Veteran for a friend of his, and thought to look up my father. In doing so, he found me – or rather – my facebook. If I hadn’t run for office, I never would have been found. Mr. Barry’s mother Ms. Barbara went on a mission to have my Dad’s surviving friends, now well into their 80’s, send me their memories of my father.
The most amazing thing was that a cousin, Mr. Charles Horner, was contacted through this process. My grandmother had given him my father’s childhood sled – and Charles had kept it all these years. It was presented to me this past Thanksgiving when Barry’s sister, also a childhood chum, brought it to Nashville. Anyway, a newspaper picked up the story and ran it as their Christmas Eve story along the Eastern Shore. Soon after, I got the rest of the story of that sled from a citizen in Princess Anne. It had been a gift to my father, from his parents, after he recovered from the fever. Apparently he was sick and tired of being bed ridden because in high-school he played on Washington High’s basketball, baseball, soccer, and cross-country teams and worked at the A&P. He later graduated from the teacher’s college in Salisbury Maryland.
I have no idea why he joined the Marine Corps or why he went into aviation – but he loved them both. He was commissioned in 1955. He must have been an excellent helicopter pilot, because he was chosen to fly ‘Marine 1’. I was not yet four, but I remember my father crying when Kennedy was assassinated – that was the only time I saw him cry. There was a movie back then, where there was an invisible rabbit named Harvey (I think Jimmy Steward starred in it) – at the time I was only about 3, and I thought that rabbit killed the President.
I did a records request 30 years ago, but the Marine Corps didn’t want to release them, until I threatened them with a Congressional request. In those records I found some things that amazed me, and others that angered me.
I found a letter from President Eisenhower, expressing appreciation to my father, and his unit, for a job well done moving the President throughout South America. However, it said nothing of the purpose of that trip. 2 years ago, at a luncheon at the YMCA in Hendersonville, I sat next to a gentleman that had been on that same trip. A stranger, in Tennessee, at a Fundraiser, at the same table as me, over 50 years later, was on that trip. I don’t remember how we even made that connection. He told me about a tragedy involving the crash of an aircraft carrying the US Navy band that was supposed to play at a state’s dinner celebrating the meeting of the 2 Presidents in Brazil. I did a Google search, and found a statement released regarding that meeting:
THE PRESIDENTS of the United States of Brazil and of the United States of America, reaffirm the joint determination of the two nations to defend the following principles:
‘The democratic freedoms and the fundamental rights of man, wherein are included the right against racial discrimination and the repudiation of any attempt against religious freedom and of any limitation on the expression of thought. These are inalienable conquests of civilization which all free men have the duty to protect, bearing in mind the sacrifices of the soldiers of both countries in the last war, and the need to prevent repetition of the causes which led to the loss of so many young and precious lives’.
I could not say anything better for the basis of today’s celebration.
I remember my Dad as being kind and gentle. He also had a US Marine Potty Mouth. We had a swear jar, it cost a nickel a word. He loved to golf – one day I asked him how his day of golfing went – he looked at me and said ‘shut up Courtney’, and he put a whole paper dollar in the jar and grinned.
He drove a 1958 candy apple red, white trim, red interior corvette.
Among those records I also found a letter, from my Dad requesting a waiver so that he could fly combat missions.
He was in a leadership position, but because he had been a Presidential pilot, he was not permitted to fly into enemy areas – the government didn’t want to risk his capture and the possible compromise of sensitive information. He wrote that those conditions were not good for the morale of his men nor for his credibility. His request was granted – hence why as his daughter, I was mad on one hand, but proud of him for his integrity on the other.
In the spring of 1965, 3,500 Marines arrived in Vietnam. My father among them.
He was on a combat supply mission when a fire broke out on his helicopter. I don’t know the cause of the fire. He protected others even then. His choices to land were an ammo dump, a small friendly village with the only well, or a rice paddy. As he was trying to reach the rice paddy, there was an explosion. Witnesses say that the fuselage of the Jolly Green broke in half about 300 feet above ground.
The very first song he made me learn to play on the electric organ he bought me in second grade was the Marine Corp Hymn. It didn’t matter if he was going for a two-week field exercise, or for a year-long deployment, it hurt me just as badly when he left. Eventually he figured out that it was easier to leave at, ‘0 dark thirty before I was awake.’
The last gift I received from him before he left for his final tour was a tiny Pomeranian puppy named Nicki. Nicki was a source of great comfort about 6 months later.
My Dad had great pride in his country, his family, and the Marine Corps. I have great pride in him and in being able to share his story.
My final point, to you surviving veterans is, it took me 50 years to get this much of his story. Don’t leave chance as the source for your families to learn yours. Record your story, mark the back of old photos with information. Help your families understand your contributions and the significance of your service. History books do not tell these stories – sometimes they don’t even tell the truth.
I know that it may be difficult to resurrect memories you’ve left behind; I have my own wartime ghosts. But to defend liberty, we must keep the truth alive and your words can serve to do so long after we all are gone. God bless you and God Bless America. Thank you.