NOVEMBER 11, 2015
A Veterans Day Story…2015
Woman discovers father’s Vietnam story
By Jennifer P. Brown
Kentucky New Era
If the letter had arrived at another time, Marti Lopez might not have given it much attention. But as it turned out, the timing was almost perfect — like it was meant to be.
It was early March 2014, and several inches of snow and ice had just pounded Western Kentucky. Schools closed for a week. Marti, a guidance counselor who was a few months shy of retirement from Sinking Fork Elementary School, was waiting out the weather from the warmth of a sandstone house in Cerulean her father’s parents had built more than 60 years earlier.
In many ways, this big slice of flat farmland near the Christian-Trigg county line looks as it did when Marti’s father was a boy in the 1940s. It is mile after mile of cropland, barns, horse pastures, country churches and houses spread acres apart.
Even today, Cerulean is remote enough that technology has a flimsy grip on the community. Marti gets her Internet connection through a satellite that can be pretty cranky, and the only way she can use her cellphone is to stand in the driveway and hope for a one-bar signal.
But when Marti opened the letter that came last year, inviting her family to a Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association reunion in Louisville, she was soon scanning the Internet. She had time on her hands and a curiosity that had been building for years. She began looking for connections to her father — and to the people who knew him nearly 50 years ago on the other side of the world.
Becoming a soldier
Jerry Ardell Roberts was born on March 2, 1941. He grew up in a big family — three girls and four boys, including Jerry. He graduated from Sinking Fork High School near his home in 1959, the last class before all of the rural high schools were consolidated into Christian County High School, and he headed to Murray State. He majored in math and chemistry and was a member of the Army ROTC program like his two older brothers had been. The Vietnam War started while Jerry was in college, and by the time he graduated in 1963, he knew he would serve in the military and fly helicopters.
Several weeks after he finished college, Jerry was married to Rita Ezell, a young woman from LaFayette he’d met one night at a street dance in the tiny South Christian town. Jerry had a boyish face. His smile was disarming and a little mischievous.
The Army gave Jerry a one-year deferment, and he took a position in Hopkinsville to teach math at Koffman Junior High School.
His father was worried about the helicopters, but Jerry had a plan for his life. After a stint in the Army, he would return to Kentucky. He wanted to teach and farm. He probably imagined himself growing old in Kentucky, a military veteran surrounded by family.
On April 7, 1965, Jerry and Rita’s first child, Maranita, was born in Texas, where he was stationed at Fort Wolters. They called the baby girl Marti.
When their second child, Jerry Vance, was born on June 24, 1966, Jerry was in Vietnam, serving with the Army’s 502nd Aviation Battalion. He celebrated by passing out cigars to his Army buddies.
The next month, on July 5, Jerry, a first lieutenant, was killed in action. According to the account military officials provided to the family, his unit, the Vinh Long Outlaws, was flying troops into combat aboard 35 helicopters that day. Jerry was the co-pilot in the lead UH-1D helicopter, a Huey that typically carried two pilots, two door gunners and eight to 10 soldiers.
“Just as his aircraft was touching down, the helicopter was hit by enemy ground fire, immobilizing it. Lt. Roberts led the crew to (the) safety of a nearby ditch. After discovering that two of his crew members had been wounded during the move to the ditch, Roberts returned to them and was carrying them to safety when he was mortally wounded by small arms fire,” the military report stated.
They buried Jerry at the Cerulean Cemetery. His family still remembers how a line of cars stretched a great distance down the country road leading to the cemetery. Jerry died a world away, but two years earlier, he had been teaching math to junior high students not far from his home.
It would be a lifetime before Marti learned about two other men who died with her father — Capt. Neil Reuter, the pilot, and Spc. William Mayhair, a gunner — and other soldiers in the Vinh Long Outlaws who were lucky to come home from Vietnam.
Losing their dad
In a photograph taken at Fort Campbell in March 1967, the post commander, Maj. Gen. Ben Sternberg is seen holding Marti and standing next to Rita, who is holding little Jerry Vance. They were at a ceremony to posthumously award the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and other honors to Jerry Roberts. In another ceremony, the Bronze Star was awarded.
As they grew up, Marti and her brother were surrounded by images and stories of their father. It was not hard for them to imagine him in their setting.
Marti knew her father had been a gregarious and energetic guy. She had heard he could be playing a game of Rook, listening to a ballgame on the radio and helping someone with a math problem — all at once. And they still tell about the time Jerry accidentally punched a hole into the living room ceiling because he was testing his ability to jump high and fast.
When Jerry Vance went to Murray and pledged his father’s fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, he was proud to see his father’s story was one that every Pike pledge must learn when they become a member.
“He was never a stranger to me,” Jerry Vance said. “Our family always talked about him.”
Marti remembers her mother showing a home movie of their father.
“I was less than 4 years old, and I can remember one evening, it was dark, and my brother and I were in my mom’s bed, and she was showing these home memories on the ceiling,” she said.
As Marti recalls, her mother was trying to project the movie image on a wall and it seemed to bounce around the room. She remembers seeing her father at a high school ceremony, walking to the front of an assembly to receive awards.
“She has always made an effort to make sure we knew him and that he was a part of our lives,” Marti said.
Jerry Vance added, “The family really kind of rallied around us and took care of us.”
A legacy confirmed
But what about their father’s time in Vietnam? That part of the story has been coming together for the past year and half.
It all started with the invitation to the July 2014 reunion of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association in Louisville. The letter came to Marti’s house when she was home after the snowstorm.
“To receive an invitation to a military reunion after a lifetime of silence was unprecedented,” she later wrote for a letter published in the Vinh Long Outlaws Association newsletter. “… When I received the letter, I started thinking about some of the others whose lives were changed that day, as well. I began to think of the Reuter family. … I had never met or talked with anyone in the Reuter family before, but I was curious about them. I wondered how their lives had been and I wondered if I could even locate them.”
Deeply motivated, she did find them.
Marti learned the Reuter family was probably in the Milwaukee area, and so she made about 30 phone calls until she finally reached Neil Reuter’s widow, Irene. A few months later, Marti was in Louisville for the helicopter pilots’ reunion and met one of Neil Reuter’s sons, Chris. On July 5, 2014, the 48th anniversary of their fathers being killed in Vietnam, Marti and Chris rode together in a Huey helicopter.
That was the first of several meetings Marti arranged in person and over the phone with men who had served with her father.
There’s Dick Leister, now in his mid-80s and living in San Diego. Leister was her father’s commanding officer. She met him in San Diego last year and he gave her his last neckerchief from his time with the Outlaws in Vietnam.
“… he later mailed me a lighter that my dad had presented to him from the Kitty Hawk Aircraft Carrier. Leister, my dad and (Steve) Gerhard had been involved in a mission in which they had rescued two Navy pilots who had been forced to bail out over dense jungle during a bombing mission. As a result of this rescue, the Navy invited them to board the Kitty Hawk in appreciation for their actions. Leister was unable to go aboard, so my dad brought him the lighter as a souvenir,” Marti wrote for the Outlaws newsletter.
Marti and her mother also attended the 50th anniversary reunion of the Vinh Long Outlaws Association last year in Washington, D.C. Although the reunion had sold out before they were able to make reservations, they went ahead and booked a flight. It was a good call. They met several men who had known Jerry.
In all, Marti has called, met or corresponded with at least 25 veterans who had a role in her father’s military life in Vietnam.
She’s learned the most precise details about the attack that brought down her father’s crew and she’s heard heartening stories about the friendships he made in a war.
She knows now that he cranked homemade ice cream in Vietnam. That he always made sure his crew was fed before he sat down to eat. That he made music tapes to pass the time and that he crushed his opponents in ping pong.
No one in Marti’s family ever really doubted Jerry was a man to be counted on. They knew. But hearing it from men who counted on him for their lives has made all the difference.
One man who wrote to Rita about a month after Jerry died has been in contact with Marti. He still remembers Lt. Jerry Roberts as a truly good man.
“Jerry may have been the best of the Outlaws. He was honest to God ‘good people,’” he told Marti. “Everybody becomes a good person after they die, but he was a good person before he died.”
All veterans treated to Deli meal by Food City!