Veterans across the United States are being honored this November 11, Veterans Day. They are thanked and praised for their contributions during their military service, for often laying down their lives in the name of home and country. On closer inspection of each vet, it becomes clear that their legacy does not end after they are discharged. Whether it is showing a descendant how to live selflessly, teaching a daughter the value of fighting for others or simply inspiring sons and daughters to serve, a veteran's effect on a community lingers long after they're gone.
From his balcony, Jerry Childers can see Chattanooga.
Even from the foyer of his East Hamilton home, it's impossible to miss the striking view visible through the large windows that make up the back wall of his house. He points out the Volkswagen plant in the distance, as well as his and his wife's church mostly hidden behind a clump of trees. Interstate 75 flows like a metallic river behind the three larger-than-life white crosses recently erected by the Crossing Church.
"I was a pilot for years in the Army-I have to be up high," Jerry chuckles as we take in the scene. "I saw the Vietnam War from start to finish, so I've got a different perspective than a lot of people." He isn't kidding.
During his three tours in Vietnam, Jerry says he saw the war unfurl beneath the blades of his chopper.
For Jerry, his life of service began with that of his ancestors. His grandfather served as a sniper in the Army in the Philippines, firing the first shots in a decisive battle during the Moro Rebellion. His father had served in the Navy during World War II, building airfields on the Aleutian
Islands. After his time in the Navy, Jerry's father worked the swing shift at the Bowater Paper Mill, which left little time to be with his kids. Jerry says he knew his father was sacrificing himself for the welfare of the family. "Christmastime would come and he wouldn't get anything for himself. That set the example to me- family and country, not just self. Today I think there's too many people who think self is first," he says.
Jerry joined the U.S. Army a week after he graduated from Tennessee Tech in 1961, and when asked why, his answer seems obvious,
"My forefathers had served and I felt it was my duty." He turned out to be a fiercely determined helicopter pilot, earning his rank through rigorous training and experience in the field. "I did not intend to make it a career but once I got there I loved it," he says. While in Vietnam, Jerry flew in 1,000 helicopter combat missions and was shot down a total of seven times. He was part of the flight team that took the first Cobra attack helicopters into battle, and during his third tour he commanded an aviation company of 350 men and 70 choppers. Long after the war and a career of continued promotions, Jerry retired as a colonel in 1990.
The generations of servicemen who had gone before him had inspired Jerry to serve his country, and it didn't end there. His two sons, Bill and Tom Childers, have led their own military careers. All of his children were born near military bases while their father was on duty, growing up as military brats. Bill attended West Point, served in Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Bosnia, and Tom served in Iraq and is currently deployed to Afghanistan.
"My father spoke of the camaraderie and I grew up listening to those stories," says Bill, who after retiring from a 20-year military career is now working as change manager at Bank of America in Atlanta. "I thought, I can really see this as something I'd like to do as an adult. I really did not have quite the level of ambition toward progressing in the ranks as my father did, but my sense of organization, the dedication to the Army, making it a better place, and to my profession as an Army officer-having that ethic of service to the country started with my dad." Jerry's grandkids don't currently plan to join the military, but having caught the traveling bug from her father Bill, his granddaughter is planning to become a missionary overseas. "The military is not the only place they can serve," explains Bill. "There's lots of opportunities to serve others.
That comes from my dad, that service piece." Jerry put his experiences in Vietnam down on paper in a book he titled Without Parachutes: How I Survived 1,000 combat missions in Vietnam. He explains
that he doesn't know a lot about his grandfather's experience in the Philippines, so he is determined that his grandkids and greatgrandkids will know him-so that they, too, can carry on the legacy.
Peter O'Hare is accustomed to flying at full speed. When he's not coordinating first-class air shows in Rome, Georgia, he's helping to piece together a 1960s-era T-28 aircraft at the Hixson Museum of Flight. As president of the museum's Board of Directors, he was midway through scheduling a Red Cross blood drive to be held within the hangar of the museum when I hopped in his car for an interview over lunch.
If his last name doesn't sound familiar, it should.
Anyone who's ever flown to Chicago has likely landed at O'Hare International Airport, named for Edward "Butch" O'Hare. Butch was a heroic Navy pilot during World War II and a Medal of Honor recipient-he's also a relative of Chattanooga's own Peter O'Hare. Butch won the Medal of Honor for single-handedly protecting an entire aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, against enemy attack in February 1942. He successfully shot down five enemy planes, damaging the sixth, before help arrived. "Without hesitation, alone and unaided ... he undoubtedly saved his carrier," says Peter. A wellknown and celebrated U.S. war hero, Butch's plane went down during a later-and just as fateful-mission over the Pacific, 15 years before Peter was even born. Peter tends to downplay their relation, saying, "There's some DNA in there somewhere." However
much DNA is shared, the two O'Hares share something even greater-a love of aviation.
As we talked over our wonton soup at Hixson's New China, I asked him why he decided to take to the air in the first place. Peter laughs, "Are you kidding me? With the last name O'Hare it's not like I had a choice. Aviation has been my life for 32 years. I didn't know I was destined, but I had the fever. I always did." His father had been in the Navy, but Peter followed his fever straight into the Marine Corps because, as he puts it, "If you want to do it, do it hard. Don't go halfway." He says he was activated for the fourth time in 2007, only just retiring as a reserve officer
last March. "The mind never remembers pain so it's all been a good experience," he says lightly, referring to his time in the military, before solemnly adding, "It's been an honor and a privilege to serve. A life of public service is a life well spent."
Service is a trait inherited from the long line of O'Hares, and Peter says it's something ingrained in his upbringing even more than aviation. It's in his blood, he explains. What really inspires him, he adds, is the amount of character that heroes like Butch displayed back in World War II-that
attitude of selflessness, the willingness to try no matter the cost. "That's the kind of character that made up these people. These are the stories we need to know because there are people like that.
"It's self-sacrifice, it's service, it's community," he continues. "It's trying to be something that is bigger than yourself. You can do that at any level in your life."
At this time in his own life, he's pouring himself into the flight museum, which is a nonprofit organization offering a piece of history in the back roads of Hixson while contributing funds to Children's Hospital. As we stroll through the museum and hangar, he proudly shows off the newest acquisitions like one-of-a-kind photographs of the attack on Kanehoe
Bay in Hawaii in 1941 and the static display of a T-28 that visitors can actually sit in, to name a couple.
He says he's wildly impressed with the 266 members of the museum who volunteer to keep the place up and running. He brags on them for piecing together an entire T-28 in a matter of two weeks, adding that he's
thrown his lot in with the Tennessee Volunteers. "The state is called the Volunteer State? It is," he says. "I've been to every continent on the planet and I could've chosen to live anywhere and I live here ... because of the people, the environment."
As Sylvia Wygoda grew up in Chattanooga, she learned several things about her father.
For instance, he disliked standing in lines and eating in cafeterias. A master of languages, he often sat listening to a shortwave radio. But possibly what sticks out the most in Sylvia's memory was her father's intense American patriotism; the first thing to go up when the Wygoda family moved into a new house were the stars and stripes atop the flagpole in the front yard.
It's interesting because Hermann Wygoda was not born in America. In fact, he was a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust. And not only did he survive it, he overcame it.
It was December 1944 when Hermann, surrounded by the sparkling snow of the Maritime Alps in Italy, decided to put his story on paper. He filled page after page about the horrors of the Nazi invasion in Warsaw.
He described the days he disguised himself to sneak food and supplies into the Warsaw ghettos that he had been able to avoid. Hermann also penned his heartbreak at failing to save his son, his family, from the death sentence of the concentration camps.
Hearing word that the Allies were near Italy, Hermann traveled there in hopes of joining with them to bring down the Nazi regime. He came upon the city of Savona and, because of his background as a Polish soldier, the young and inexperienced resistance army there enlisted him as their new commander. Under his leadership, the ranks swelled from a few dozen to 2,500, and together they took back Savona. U.S. General Mark Clark personally gave Hermann the Bronze Star to honor his actions.
Hermann wanted to start over in America, so he settled in Chattanooga to be near a long lost sister who lived in the area. He fell in love again and had more children, Sylvia included. After his death in 1982, Sylvia and her siblings discovered yellow legal pads filled with the words of his diaries from Italy. Hermann had translated his Polish words into English so that his children could know his story, and it was through these pages that Sylvia learned the truth about her father.
Even before learning the entirety of her father's past, Sylvia charged into her career with a similar determined mindset to her father's. "My parents were people of great virtues. I was raised with a lot of compassion and empathy for people who were not as advantaged, thanks to my father's hard work. All that had an impact on me," she says.
Starting her career in the education field, she specifically sought out a teaching job in inner-city Atlanta. It was soon apparent that she shared her father's boldness.
One day, she piled all of her students, more than 30 first-graders, onto a bus and took them to Atlanta's City Hall for an audience with the mayor, though she had not been invited. The mayor saw her and her students that day, and even heard them out as they voiced their concerns. Though she wasn't always in a classroom, education remained at the heart of Sylvia's career. She held various positions in administration, from running an associate degree program for a college at Fort McPherson to holding the executive director position over the state of Georgia's Holocaust Commission. She was even instrumental in getting a law passed stating that Georgia must always have an active Holocaust Commission. "I've just had a ball," she laughs. "I've been so lucky to have jobs that I loved. My life has been an adventure."
Today she's basking in retirement, but it doesn't keep her from continuing her mission. She keeps busy on the advisory board for the Anne Frank Center USA, headquartered in New York City, and as director of the Four Chaplains Legion of Honor Award program.
One of her proudest accomplishments is creating the Children's Memorial Peace Gardens of yellow daffodils planted in various locations around Chattanooga. Each flower memorializes a child who died because of war or other violence, and Sylvia's half-brother who was killed in a concentration camp is included among them.
"Each year the bulbs come back; I'm very proud of that," Sylvia says. She adds, "My world does not revolve around the Holocaust, it's the lessons we learn from the Holocaust not to generalize about people. Another big lesson is not to be a bystander. And I am not a bystander. How could I be?"
Sylvia says she lives her life with this in mind.
"My father survived the Holocaust. He thrived. If he could do it, you can do whatever you want to do. You can find a way."