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On the 4th, remembering our veterans and their powerful legacies

Independence Day is an opportunity to be thankful for our loved ones

Independence Day sparks images of picnic baskets, cotton candy and, of course, fireworks of all shapes and colors. But below the surface of these festivities is a solemn mood of remembrance as we reflect on the birth of our country, which certainly did not come without sacrifice.

This year has special meaning for many Minnesotans. Nearly 3,000 Red Bulls brigade members returned home, and Duluth veterans unveiled a statue at the regional airport in honor of Minnesota’s last living Tuskegee Airman fighter pilot, Joe Gomer. The unveiling on June 20 came just in time for Gomer’s 92nd birthday and is a reminder that those who witnessed some of the most haunting points in our history firsthand may soon be forgotten, unless we fight to keep their stories alive.

Shortly after the 4th, another celebration in the Twin Cities will honor the stories and bravery of Gomer and other veterans and dignitaries from all points in our aviation history. AirExpo 2012, July 14 and 15 at Flying Cloud Airport, will bring history books to life. The event will showcase popular and historical aircraft up close on the ground and in the air as they fly in formation.

One of many incredible stories

For me, as a veteran pilot, the emotions that surface when I see these decorated planes resting in the field are awesome. Beyond the coats of paint and steel plates are incredible stories of courage, conflict and reconciliation.

My story begins 40 years ago and 15,000 feet in the skies over North Vietnam when I shot down an enemy MiG-21. Before it crashed, I saw the pilot pop out with his parachute. Then, I did not think twice about his name or whether he had a family waiting at home. A pilot’s mission is very impersonal, and I was there to do my job.

Fast forward to 2004. During a visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, I discovered the very airplane I had flown in that Vietnam dogfight. The F4 Phantom was on display with my name and red victory star. My curiosity was provoked and set in motion a series of events that led me to write to a Vietnamese television show that reunites people who have lost touch.

I had to know what happened

I knew the odds were not in my favor, but I had to know what had happened to the other pilot in that 1972 dogfight. Incredibly, I heard back from the show’s producer within two weeks. She had found the MiG pilot and invited me to Vietnam to meet him on live television.

When Nguyen Hong My walked onto the set he greeted me with a firm handshake and words of welcome. To my amazement, he expressed desire for us to become friends. Nguyen Hong My has his own story, too. I later learned that Ho Chi Minh himself had presented him with his pilot wings, and in his culture, his defeat could have been a heavy embarrassment. But he showed strength and humbleness when he asked for my friendship.

The live interview walked through our histories and in the background scrolled pictures of our children and grandchildren. Two tough, old fighter pilots were both brought to tears on national television, thinking about how our fates could have been very different. After the interview, Nguyen Hong My invited me to his home in Hanoi to meet his family. He acted as my tour guide and we explored every museum, war memorial and tourist attraction.

Terrors — and rewards

Despite our backgrounds and past hostilities, our friendship continues to blossom today. Like me, Nguyen Hong My is excited to attend AirExpo 2012 as a special guest.

Independence Day is an opportunity to be thankful for our loved ones. And, in my experience, even past foes. War is personal for both sides and does not come without cost. The heroes and legends at the AirExpo have experienced both terrifying and rewarding moments. I imagine that continued interest in some of our country’s most defining points in history would rank among the rewards.

This year, let’s celebrate our freedoms and ensure that the legacies of our veterans are not lost to time.

Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry served with the U.S. Air Force for 29 years, during which he commanded the Eighth Tactical Fighter Wing and the Thunderbirds, and flew 295 combat missions during the Vietnam War.

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