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Hero’s welcome, at last

By Nicole Burns for the FCT

“I just let it go.”

When Robert Mays returned home from Vietnam in 1970, he didn’t find a hero’s welcome. Instead, protesters shouted cruel things to him and the other servicemen who flew into Seattle, Wash., one early morning. Maybe that’s why Mays said he doesn’t always feel appreciated by his country and why this week’s ceremony at Phil Campbell High School was only the second Veteran’s Day program he’s ever agreed to attend.

“It kind of aggravates you,” said Mays. “We got there at 5 o’clock in the morning. There were people lined up along the fence on the runway at the airport, and they were hollering out, ‘Baby killers!’ and ‘Murderer!’”

Protests and politics aside, the 1964 Phil Campbell High School alum proudly served as a U.S. Army Mobile Generator Operator Mechanic. At just 24 years old, Mays was the oldest in his company. His job description changed to explosives transporter when the first 22nd Delta Company, his company, received orders to cross into Cambodia. Mays became emotional talking about a lieutenant from Oklahoma, his friend, who died that first night in Cambodia.

At 24 years old, Mays was the oldest soldier in his company.
At 24 years old, Mays was the oldest soldier in his company.

“Boy, that first night. They had to call the medical evac to come get that lieutenant. He died on the way in. They radioed back. But there were five or six others that got shot up. I was thinking, there won’t be anybody left here to go back to Vietnam.”

Mays spent about three years in active duty that sent him around the world. He served in Vietnam, was stationed for a year in Massachusetts, and also went to England to participate in War Games.

Mays, a 1964 PCHS graduate, served as a U.S. Army Mobile Generator Operator Mechanic and an explosives transporter.
Mays, a 1964 PCHS graduate, served as a U.S. Army Mobile Generator Operator Mechanic and an explosives transporter.

On Tuesday, Mays was one 17 local veterans honored at the Phil Campbell High School Veteran’s Day program. PCHS alum Ted Eric Ergle echoed Mays’ feelings during the ceremony. “Vietnam has a special kind of veteran,” said Ergle. “They served to a seemingly ungrateful nation. They did not get the welcome home they deserved.” Ergle currently serves in the National Guard and was the special guest speaker for his alma mater’s ceremony.

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Ergle quoted John 15:13, which reads, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” Ergle became emotional as he gave tribute to the men and women who served before him and read through a history of lives lost during each time of war. “We have some really big boots to fill,” said Ergle. “This might be my only opportunity to thank you for your service. So, thank you.”

It was appreciation well-received by veterans, such as Mays, who said he was glad he agreed to attend this week’s ceremony. Ergle turned to the younger generation of students sitting in the PCHS bleachers listening to all being said and gave them a piece of advice. “If you’re lucky enough to have one of these heroes in your life, take the time to talk to them. They are living history.”

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