Vietnam (and Air Force) veterans of a certain age remember Lieutenant Colonel Joe Jackson and what he did at Kham Duc, South Vietnam on May 12, 1968. Jackson, a veteran of three wars, was a C-123 pilot who volunteered for an exceptionally dangerous mission--attempting the rescue of a three-man Air Force combat control team from Kham Duc, which had been overrun by enemy forces.
Against long odds, Jackson and his crew managed to retrieve the combat controllers. For his heroism, Colonel Jackson received the Congressional Medal of Honor. From the medal citation:
Hostile forces had overrun the forward outpost and established gun positions on the airstrip. They were raking the camp with small arms, mortars, light and heavy automatic weapons, and recoilless rifle fire. The camp was engulfed in flames and ammunition dumps were continuously exploding and littering the runway with debris. In addition, eight aircraft had been destroyed by the intense enemy fire and one aircraft remained on the runway reducing its usable length to only 2,200 feet. To further complicate the landing, the weather was deteriorating rapidly, thereby permitting only one air strike prior to his landing. Although fully aware of the extreme danger and likely failure of such an attempt. Lt. Col. Jackson elected to land his aircraft and attempt to rescue. Displaying superb airmanship and extraordinary heroism, he landed his aircraft near the point where the combat control team was reported to be hiding. While on the ground, his aircraft was the target of intense hostile fire. A rocket landed in front of the nose of the aircraft but failed to explode. Once the combat control team was aboard, Lt. Col. Jackson succeeded in getting airborne despite the hostile fire directed across the runway in front of his aircraft. Lt. Col. Jackson's profound concern for his fellow men, at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself, and the Armed Forces of his country.
But the Medal of Honor was just the capstone of an extraordinary aviation career. He was a B-24 Liberator pilot during World War II; in Korea, he logged 107 combat missions flying F-84 jet fighters. Later, he was one of the first military pilots to fly the U-2, and Jackson planned and directed aerial reconnaissance missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He is also credited with developing techniques for navigating and landing jet aircraft in poor weather, and tactics for mass, transoceanic ferrying flights.
Given his accomplishments, it should come as no surprise that Colonel Jackson is still serving today, at the age of 87. He was featured on Friday's edition of NBC Nightly News for his volunteer work in Kent, Washington, where Jackson lives in retirement. Correspondent Christina Brown describes Jackson's current efforts as "an act of service, born of routine:"
At 87 years old, Joe Jackson hasn't let age, the slow decay of his sight nor the typical aches and pains that accompany the senior years slow him down. Every Monday for the past 18 years--and I do mean EVERY Monday--you can find Jackson at the Covington Safeway grocery store in Kent, Washington, a suburb outside Seattle, picking up donated groceries with his friends. Then the group travels to Kent Lutheran Church and delivers the food so volunteers can prepare meals for the church's Monday supper.
The diners on Monday evening typically aren't the same people who attend Sunday morning service. They're the community's homeless and working poor--or, in Shelly Gaub's case, who's on Social Security and says she doesn't make a lot of money, they come because, "It's nice to get away, to be able to talk." When I asked her if she knew from where her next meal might come, she simply replied, "God is always there to provide."
Jackson and Gaub have never met, and perhaps never will, but they're part of one another's weekly routine. To Gaub, Jackson is a faceless, nameless angel, just part of God's plan to help bring food to her table.
And until last night, most of the people served by the church's food ministry were unaware that the man who collects the food for their meal is a military hero, recipient of the nation's highest award for combat valor.
In a brief interview with the reporter, Colonel Jackson was quiet and unassuming--about what you'd expect. Over the years, I've had the great honor and good fortune to meet several CMOH recipients; to a man, their persona matches that of Joe Jackson: modest, unpretentious individuals who discuss their combat experiences reluctantly, and down-play their own valor.
Kudos to NBC for featuring Colonel Jackson and his decades of selfless service. Next week, Nightly News will focus on "celebrities who are making a difference." You know, the same Hollywood types that are sometimes paid to appear at charity events, or place unreasonable demands on event organizers.
Memo to Brian Williams and the crew at NBC: Give us more stories like the one on Colonel Jackson, and skip the celebrity phonies. I'm guessing that we've already heard about some of their charitable achievements--they've been crowing about them for years on Entertainment Tonight and in the pages of People magazine.
ADDENDUM: Colonel Jackson is also unique in the fact that he was one of two men from Newnan, Georgia to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam. Jackson and the other Newnan native, Marine Corps Major Steven Pless, received the award from President Lyndon Johnson during the same White House ceremony and they earned the CMOH for the same type of mission--daring rescues under intense enemy fire. The similarities between Jackson and Pless led President Johnson to observe "there must be something in the water" down in Newnan. Sadly, Pless was killed in a motorcycle accident barely six months after the White House ceremony.