The 135th Assault Helicopter Company “lost a lot of people, but we never forgot them,” said Fred Dunaway, who commanded the unit.
One of them — Terry Mezera — is being remembered Tuesday by a fellow crew member and that man’s country.
Killed on Jan. 16, 1971, Mezera posthumously will receive the Unit Citation for Gallantry awarded by the Australian government’s governor-general.
Jim Shaw, a member of the Royal Australian Navy Helicopter Flight Vietnam unit, will present the ribbon to Mezera’s family, including his parents Frank and Betty, at 1 p.m. Tuesday at VFW Post 305.
“Terry was very proud of what he did, and we were very proud of him,” said World War II Navy veteran Frank from the home he shares with Betty on Eau Claire’s north side.
Terry Mezera, a 1967 North High School graduate, arrived in Vietnam in March 1970 and officially began his tour of duty on April 2, 1970, serving with the 135th AHC.
Organized at Fort Hood, Texas, in February 1967, the 135th deployed to Vietnam that October, according to its website. RAN Helicopter Flight Vietnam was assigned to the company, and the unit became known as the Experimental Military Unit, or EMU, for short.
On Jan. 16, 1971, Mezera was piloting a U.S. Army helicopter flying in support of the 5th Special Forces when the aircraft was shot down in Cambodia.
The crew included American and Australian service members, including Shaw, but the 21-year-old Mezera was the only casualty.
Over the years, Shaw, Geoff Jones, who also was on the helicopter, and other members of the 135th kept in touch with Mezera’s family, including his youngest sister, Pam Nesbit of Fall Creek.
In a June 1, 2018 post, the HueyVets — EMU Facebook page announced the 135th AHC was to receive the Unit Citation for Gallantry.
“It’s pretty awesome if you ask me,” said Dunaway, who lives in Biloxi, Miss. His wife alerted Nesbit.
“They went through a lot,” Nesbit said of the members of the 135th. “When they tell the stories, you can see the pain on their faces, you can tell how the war affected them.”
She was 13 when her 21-year-old brother was killed. Their brother, Mark, also served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era.
“It makes me feel proud they are recognizing them, including my brother,” said Nesbit of Terry.
Jones was the crew chief on the helicopter that Mezera was piloting that day more than 47 years ago.
“He was a lot fun,” Jones said, recalling how the pair would wrestle together. “It was hard to lose him.”
While Jones survived the helicopter crash, he was shot. Speaking from his home in Petaluma, Calif., he said he recently got his ribbon from the Australians.
“Terry did a good job,” Jones said. “I’m glad he is getting the recognition he deserves.”
So is his mother.
“He wanted to serve, and he wanted to be a pilot,” she said of her oldest son, whose photo is on display in her living room. (Nesbit has her brother’s medals on display in a shadow box in her home.) “He was hooked from day 1.”
Even though her son loved being a pilot and he made the men who flew with him feel safe, Betty prayed he would return to Eau Claire. However, when a priest appeared at their door, she knew her worst fears had been realized.
“I guess when your time is up, it’s up,” she said. “But, you expect your kids to live longer than you do.”
A few weeks back, while reminding my children to listen to their father’s sage advice given my 35 years of life experience, my wife called from the other room: “You’re 34.”
“You’re 34 years old.”
And just like that, I sloughed off an entire year. No matter that I could no longer remember my age, the important thing was that someone was around to help me clarify the foggier points.
I chalked it up as a win, though it was a short-lived one.
Regardless of the precise number of candles on the cake, in recent months, the specter of middle-age has become a regular visitor. One day I shocked the world by taking a sudden interest in breadmaking. The next, I diagnosed a poorly constructed snowman with a “lower lumbar” condition. In the classroom, my college students now scratch their heads at my dated references. And on the home front, every delightful joke I share earns me little more than an eyeroll.
I am hardly alone in my indignities. Indignities, I’ll add, that are blessings, too, and proof of being alive.
To get a second opinion on the view from middle age, one afternoon I grab a drink at The Joynt with my buddy Kyran Hamill, a lifelong Wisconsinite and active community member who’s just weeks away from turning 40. As a result of his milestone birthday, he’s begun to reflect on his life.
“I’ve refocused on the bigger picture,” Kyran tells me. Which for him means recommitting himself to travel and sharing as much of the world as he can with his children. Time, though it once seemed infinite, no longer does. As such, he needs to make choices. And he’s been making them.
Though Kyran has yet to take up breadmaking, he’s found another hobby: curating his past. As of late, he’s begun busily sorting through a lifetime’s worth of cards, notes, calendars, and VHS tapes with an eye toward digitizing the items worth saving and dispensing with the rest. “It’s therapeutic,” he says. But more importantly, it’s a record of his life for his children.
While Kyran concedes that middle age likely spurred his newfound interest in personal archival work, he’s glad for the opportunity to look back. Turning 40, he explains, has prompted him to reassesses the arc of his life. “It’s allowed me to ask, ‘What do I need to start doing now so that in the end I’m able to say that I didn’t just ride the wave, that I got out my oar and started paddling.”
For a different perspective, I reach out to a second friend — this one with twice as much life experience.
“So what do you want to know about being an octogenarian?” Jim Alf asks one morning over tea in his dining room. Jim and I have been friends for years, having bonded over our shared love for writing and history.
“Well, what’s the best part?” I begin. “And the worst part too?”
“The good part is we’re relieved of a lot of stuff. I don’t have to go out and saw any logs today. Although,” he continues, “I wish I could. And that’s probably a drawback to being old. You can’t do what you want anymore.”
According to Jim, sawing logs was what he was put on this earth to do.
“I was good at it,” he says. “I was good at getting the most out of them.”
In order to do so, he had to study each log that crossed his blade.
“I read logs like other people read newspapers,” he says. By exploring each log’s contours, he was better prepared to make the cut. You can learn a lot about life by sawing a log, he explains. First and foremost, it teaches you to keep your eyes on the challenges ahead.
At 81, Jim’s acutely aware of his own challenges.
“My body’s quitting on me,” he says. “I have two health problems in a contest to shut me down. And I know that. But I’m still glad to have had these years to have done these things.” Which in addition to sawing, include being a husband, father, grandfather, and friend.
“The most important thing I’ve done since I’ve grown old is write this,” he says, nodding to a self-published book on the table beside us. It’s his own way of curating the past — a journal documenting his 77th year, alongside memories that reach back much further.
He’s written it for his children, and their children, many of whose pictures grace its cover.
“I could buy them all kinds of trinkets and toys or whatever, but I think the history of who they are will probably be the most important thing to them in time.”
Jim takes a sip of tea, then asks, “What did your 40-year-old friend tell you about what he’s seeing from his perspective?”
I relay Kyran’s thoughts on the importance of travel, preserving memories, and making choices as he focuses on the arc ahead.
“That’s not a midlife crisis,” Jim smiles. “That’s just putting one’s feet on solid ground.”
I, too, aspire toward such ground. But perpetual motion machine that I am, my feet wouldn’t know solid ground even if I found it. Which is not a pat on the back as much as a reminder to reassess my own life’s arc. Aside from breadmaking, in recent years my favorite pastime has become telling everyone how busy I am. For some, it likely comes off as a humble brag of the worst kind (“He’s busy so he must be important!”), though my true motive in expressing my alleged busyness is to give voice to a concern that weighs heavily on me: how in my attempt to please everyone, I please everyone but the people I love.
No doubt Kyran and Jim’s shared sentiments on making and preserving family memories is the advice I most need to hear. After all, what good’s a fresh loaf of bread if there’s no one to eat it with? And what good’s a cleanly-cut log without a roaring fire surrounded by family and friends?
It’s a lesson better learned late than never.
And now that I know it, I can work out my kinks. Hopefully without throwing out my back in the process.
Next Saturday: Patti See explores how we spend our days impacts how we spend our lives.