The Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program at Maricopa High School is thriving, with about 130 students, or 5% of the MHS student body, enrolled in its courses.
The students had a treat on Sept. 20 when they got a visit from Capt. Bob Allen, U.S. Army, Ret., who visited them to share stories of his time as a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.
The Air Force JROTC commander at MHS, Lt Col. Allen Kirksey, knew Allen through Maricopa Unified School District governing board member Jim Jordan, who is Allen’s brother-in-law. After meeting, Kirksey invited Allen to speak to a JROTC class and he enjoyed it.
“It was a controversial time when he joined, but he joined anyway,” said Kirksey of Allen. “It shows the kind of commitment to making the world better that he has, and that a lot of veterans have. He had a lot of combat experiences, and he was happy to share those with our cadets. What he was trying to convey is the idea of service before self, and where is your place in the world, and how you can find that through service.”
Allen said he uses these kinds of speeches — he does them frequently as part of his job as the veteran care coordinator for Ohio’s Hospice in his home city of Columbus — as a cathartic experience. And having come home from Vietnam when he did, there was plenty of trauma to get over.
“I don’t want Afghan vets to go through the same psychological trauma and same what-ifs that we had when those of us who served in Vietnam returned,” he said. “I don’t want them to have the same feelings of helplessness, emptiness and nothingness I had when I returned home. When I returned home wearing my uniform after experiencing what I did and losing friends and I am yelled at and called baby killer.
“The second time I came home, I took my uniform off as soon as I could and put on civilian clothes so I wouldn’t be harassed going through the airport,” he continued. “Those were the times; that was the culture. During the Vietnam era, we as an American population couldn’t just hate the war and love the warrior; we hated the war and the warrior and that’s something most Vietnam veterans just can’t get over – that their own people turned against them.”
For their part, the cadets in the Maricopa High School program got a lot of benefit from hearing Allen speak, regardless of whether they are planning on an enlistment or career in the military.
Kristine Heckadon, the Corps Commander of the Air Force JROTC unit at Maricopa High is “absolutely not” planning to enlist, but got a lot out of Allen’s talk by applying the lessons of his service to everyday life.
“It was Bob Allen who told us that if we ever saw a Vietnam War veteran to be sure to tell them ‘welcome home’ because they never got that when they returned,” she said.
During one of his visits to MHS, the grandson of one of the men Allen rescued on the Christmas mission came to him and thanked him for saving his grandfather’s life.
Allen remembered the incident fondly, saying “in a personal way, you never know how your current acts of kindness or thoughtfulness, or selflessness will come back later in the form of a thank you. That’s not why you do those things — but when they do it’s an extra special time.”
Eriyanna Corona, the Executive Protocol Officer at MHS, took something different from Allen’s experience.
“I plan on enlisting,” she said, “and to see that he was able to make light out of this dark situation, when it (military service) wasn’t that well liked back in the states, was amazing. Even in a heavy situation, there’s a way to see the good.”
Allen shared Kirksey’s view about his time in the service and its effects on the balance of his life.
“It starts with a passion for something that’s greater than yourself,” Allen said. “I think people are hungry for the opportunity to make a difference in the world and I can tell you that veterans never have to answer that question, ‘have you ever made a difference in the world?’ because every one of them have.”
Heckadon said there was one lesson from Allen’s combat experience that has stuck with her above the others.
“He said it’s OK to show emotion but don’t let it overcome you in the field,” she said. “You’ll see a lot of things you normally wouldn’t see in civilian life, but you have to put it aside and keep moving forward.”
And as much as the cadets learned from Allen, he learned a thing or two as well. “It keeps one young,” he said. “It allowed me the opportunity to restore my faith in the coming generation and I was especially proud of the ROTC program there at Maricopa High School.”
But given what he has seen and done through his time in the Army and beyond, Allen had some poignant words during his presentation to those who don’t like America or what it stands for.
“They can go to whatever socialist country they believe is utopia for them and knock their hearts out. I know from my experience and from my heart that this country is the greatest one on Earth.”
This story was first published in the November edition of InMaricopa magazine.