***written at my dining room table, sipping turmeric tea and trying to get tired so I can survive my 12 hour night shift that I start tonight***
Yes. I do still exist. Yes. Work has been insane…more so than usual, but that is not for this post (promise I will catch you up soon! I’ve been doing this for 6 years now, no point in stopping!). This post is about the coolest ceremony I will have ever put together. A POW medal presentation and memorial flyover for Col Charles Heckel.
This all started in September. I got an email requesting a memorial flyover. While I have nothing to do with planes, my primary duty now has a lot to do with death, so it fell into my lap. The grandson (Phil Johnson) of the deceased Col Charles Heckel (died in 2015) was requesting a memorial flyover for his grandfather, who had flown in WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam. He had been stationed at Shaw AFB a few times and they wanted to do it at our wing. The kicker? He was getting a POW medal for Col Heckel and wanted it presented in conjunction with the flyover.
The story (in short): The then 20 year old Lt Heckel was a POW in WWII in Germany from 13 Oct 1944 to 29 April 1945. He was flying for the Army Air Corp and had to bail out of his aircraft after a midair collision in an Air Battle (but not after first taking out a Nazi). He was captured and marched across Germany and forced to live in the most inhumane conditions. He was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Pretty damn cool. Even cooler? He went on to serve in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and retired from the Air Force in 1976. The POW medal was created in 1984 and Col Heckel, retired, did not apply for it. In fact, he didn’t even really talk about what happened until his great grandson was doing a homework project and it all came out. This got Phil researching and he learned just how incredible his grandfather was….which eventually lead him to reaching out to me.
Thus the Scooby Doo mystery began. How does one get a POW medal? These aren’t a common thing to present. He was in the Army Air Corps so this presented a problem…who was the medal from. I called Air Force Mortuary Affairs Office (AFMAO)….who passed me onto the Past Conflicts Branch – Air Force, who passed me on to the Past Conflicts Branch – Army, who passed me on to Army’s Human Resources Command who then passed me on to the Air Force Personnel Center because according to some regulation in 1947, every one who was transferred to the Air Force would receive all medals, awards, etc from the Air Force. I finally got the information and called Phil. Turns out HRC sent him the medal no questions (siiiiiggggghhh). So now I had to figure out the flyover piece. My paperwork went through AFMAO to the Pentagon who sent it back to Air Combat Command (ACC) who said the flyover was approved and asked if Shaw was volunteering for this. WHOA WHOA WHOA. Seeing as they are not my F-16s and I cannot volunteer them for things, this could have been a problem. So I worked with the pilots to get more paperwork routed. One month out, we got the final approval, this. was. HAPPENING!
I got to meet Mrs. Heckel and her daughter, Reverend Susan Johnson, to pick up the POW medal and keep it safe. I visited with them for over 1.5 hours on a Wednesday and only had to leave because I had work in the morning. Mrs. Heckel had the best stories. I could have listened to her for hours. Turns out, Col Heckel is a descendant from Abraham Lincoln. Something special obviously runs with that bloodline. The medal came in a beat up cardboard box in a sad little puffer envelope. Thank you for your sacrifice. Here’s this beat up little medal. This was unacceptable. I immediately put it on my to do list to make a more acceptable presentation case and figure out how to unbend the ribbon.
Next, I had to figure out how to plan the ceremony. Nobody had seen one before nor had a clue how to do it. So I consulted my fence line Ohana brother, Pete, who works protocol at Hickam in Hawaii, and therefore the Pearl Harbor events every year, helped me work the script and make it amazing. There was minimal protocol support available from the Wing so I called in my dragon slayers (the people I knew would help me get stuff done) and divided up the tasks. It all came together….although at times it didn’t feel like it would. The snow stopped the new POW medal ribbon from coming in on FedEx and I had a TSgt constantly monitoring and calling…it took 7 days for an overnight shipment (we would replace the bent ribbon with a new one and keep the engraved portion). The Arts and Crafts on base put together the frame and plaque together in a rush order.
I made bouquets at 6am and wrapped them with yellow ribbon and dog tags and a scarf from the 55th (Col Heckel flew with them).
A MSgt made a gorgeous program. Two of my MSgts worked the timing perfectly with the script to match the flyover (this was harder than it sounds…we didn’t want a gap and there to be an awkward pause. We had escorts to get the 30 family members (4 generations of family) on base and to the Club for a prestaging area. We printed a citation to accompany the decoration (the puffer envelope was not enough). I couldn’t have pulled it off without my amazing team.
Then it started. We had at least 150 people show up…even members of Third Army (Patton’s Army actually…that happens to be located on Shaw as well)…60 chairs full then standing room only.
So amazing to see how many people showed up to honor a hero. The best part was Phil telling the story of what his grandfather did.
I almost teared up listening to the level of sacrifice one man gave. I do not want to butcher it….so here is a small video put together by the 20th Fighter Wing Public affairs office. Click Here.
The ceremony was amazing and ended with a wreath laying and the playing of taps. It left chills running down my spine.
The family surprised me and signed an original design of the 20th FW patch from 1934. Phil painted it and had all 4 daughters sign it. Then put a picture of Mrs. Heckel on it (this almost made me cry…somehow I was able to keep it together in front of everyone).
I got to spend the rest of the afternoon with the Heckels and got to follow them around as my USAFA classmate Taylor showed them the 55th Fighter Squadron.
The energy from this ceremony lasted all week.
I am honored and humbled to have met this family. It took working 12-15 hour days and even sleeping in Sumter for fear I wouldn’t be able to drive back to Columbia if the roads got shut down for ice. Worth every minute. Getting to put on a ceremony like this may be the coolest one I ever get to put on. Sharing military stories like this is important. Honoring heroes is important. It reminds me why I serve and makes me grateful for the brave men and women who paved the way before me.
Talk to you all soon. Have a great day.