04/19/13 — Pilots talk about battles, healing

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Pilots talk about battles, healing

By Matt Caulder
Published in News on April 19, 2013 1:46 PM

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Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, left, shakes Lt. Col. John Stiles' hand after Stiles related his harrowing tale about being shot down by a North Vietnamese fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. Cherry later would shoot down that same enemy pilot.

A crowd packed Moffatt Auditorium at Wayne Community College Thursday night, oohing and ahhing, laughing and gasping and giving multiple standing ovations to the speakers -- Retired Air Force Lt. Col. John Stiles and his friend and author of the book "My Enemy, My Friend," Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry.

Theirs was a story of reconciliation in the face of great distance, geographically as well as culturally.

Cherry spoke more to the reconciliation of the grudges that many veterans held after the cold welcome they received after the Vietnam War.

At its heart, it is the story of how three fighter pilots in the Vietnam War, two American and one Vietnamese, came to forgive one another, and become close friends.

Years after Cherry had finished his military career, he had the chance to find out what happened to the fighter pilot in the MiG-21 after their dogfight. He and Lt. Nguyen Hong My eventually met and became friends.

Retired Army 1st Sgt. Ernest Whitman, a Vietnam veteran, attended Thursday night to learn more about Stiles and Cherry's experiences in the war.

"I still reminisce about (The Vietnam War) a lot," Whitman said. "It would be hard to forgive that. You go over there and you do things .... You always have that hate. But I think I could if I had to."

The crowd gave a thunderous applause after Cherry played a segment of the History Channel show, "Dogfights," that tells the story of fighter jet aerial combat through animation and they responded emotionally when Cherry got choked up as he showed a picture of him holding Hong My's grandson.

He said in that moment he was hit by the closeness of his and his former enemy's friendship.

Retired Army Sgt. Maj. Milford Bizzell said he had heard of Cherry and wanted to come out and see him in person.

Bizzell said the presentation brought him back to when he was an infantryman on his first tour in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

Bizzell said that he understands in a way the camaraderie the pilots shared is similar to the bond the infantrymen shared after going through firefights together.

The Wall That Heals that has been erected on the WCC campus reminds Bizzell of all of the troops lost in the war.

"We lost so many. They talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, I lost 350 men in 15 minutes," Bizzell said, adding that, "I still don't know why we were fighting over there."

The full reconciliation came about when Hong My asked Cherry to find out the fate of an American plane he had shot down over Laos. Cherry, using the information Hong My had given him, discovered that the crew had in fact survived the crash. Stiles was the weapons officer on the RF-4 reconnaissance jet that Hong My had shot down.

The crowd gasped as Stiles described spinning to the ground upside down and out of control with only six seconds to eject.

The pilot managed to right the plane and Stiles ejected just above the tree-line, coming to rest hanging in the canopy of the tree over the flaming wreckage.

"Oh my goodness, the healing is there for the vets and their families and that is such a good blessing," spectator Beth Kannan said of the presentation. "That is what we do, we just go forward."