Mall rolls out red carpet at Military Appreciation Day

Mar. 30, 2013 @ 07:10 PM

Military Appreciation Day at The Streets at Southpoint mall brought out veterans – including parachuters and rappellers – who showed that the skills they learned in the service haven’t slipped away.

Saturday’s event, sponsored by the mall and USO of North Carolina, gave the public a chance to talk with veterans and see military displays, including a helicopter that survived enemy fire in the Vietnam War.

The Huey chopper was a big draw outside the mall’s cinema, which premiered the movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”

But the helicopter in front of the theaters was no image – as its bullet holes attest.

Built in 1964, it preceded the Blackhawk, the current U.S. Army chopper.

Vietnam veteran Brock Nicholson is the caretaker of the Huey, which he keeps on his farm near Clayton. For many veterans, the sight of the chopper brought back memories – and sometimes tears.

One veteran choked up after taking a look at the Huey, and had to walk away.

That’s a common reaction, because it stirs deep emotions, Nicholson said.

Nicholson, 69, served in Vietnam for the U.S. Army from 1969-70. He was a member of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company.

“We were busy [flying the chopper],” he said. “Sometimes, you might fly anywhere from nine to 14 hours a day. We did a lot of work, and we think we did a lot of good where we were.”

Nicholson said events like Saturday’s can boost morale for Vietnam veterans, who often got a cool reception when they returned from one of the nation’s least popular wars. But now, he said, things are different.

“I think it’s great that people are trying to show some recognition and make others think about recognizing veterans,” he said. “My observation is that current military members are some of the best we’ve ever had, and they need to be recognized. We didn’t get quite the same welcome [in the past].”

Another veteran, 72-year-old Bob Inglis of Cary, was 25 when he began flying the Huey in Vietnam in 1965, logging about 1,200 hours.

He was stationed in Germany before that, “and [President] Lyndon Johnson volunteered me,” he said, referring to the military draft which was in place then. “Johnson took all the Huey-qualified pilots out of Europe.”

“There are a lot of tough memories – real tough memories,” Inglis said of his war days. “Lost friends. You form a bond with the guys on the ground. A lot were killed in action.

“That part was really tough. But I didn’t have any problem with going there. I felt it was the right thing to do, and was proud I did it, and I’m more proud today. It’s taken a long time for Vietnam veterans to come out.”

Inglis said events like Saturday’s can help veterans.

“I think we’re keeping alive the memories of Vietnam in some ways – sharing our lives with people who are interested,” he said. “And actually, it’s a great healing vehicle. You see a lot guys with gray hair, like me, stand here and look at the helicopter, and you can tell they’ve been in the service – that they had flown in this. A lot of them will reluctantly come up and tell a little bit of their story.”

Another major attraction was parachuters with the All Veterans Parachute Team, based in Fayetteville.

The group’s president, Mike Elliott, has experience few others do – jumping in tandem with a former U.S. president.

Elliott made the jump twice with former President George H.W. Bush – when Bush was 83 and again on his 85th birthday.

“Regardless of who it is, I treat everyone the same,” Elliott said. “But when you’ve got a former president and you’re jumping with him from 13,000 feet in front of his family, it kind of gets the nerves going a little bit.”

Elliott said both jumps went well. Otherwise, he said, “I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”

Most members of Elliott’s team are members of the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights, and share his passion for parachuting.

“We love performing for people,” he said. “This is a way to give back and show the American public that our veterans still have these skills set. And we love making people smile.”