I want to thank all of the Purple Foxes for making
my time at the Pop A Smoke reunion so
wonderful. I enjoyed meeting all of you and my only wish was that I could have spent more
time with each of you.
Thank you for such a wonder reception to my speech.
Many of you have asked for a copy, and
Uncle Frank has kindly agreed to post it here. I look forward to seeing you all again in the
future. Thank you! Stephanie Hanson
For those of you who might not be familiar with my story, I’ll give a quick background first. I was adopted at birth by two very wonderful people. We never knew anything about my birth parents, but that was okay with me. However in 1996, I was forced to search for my birth parents due to medical reasons.
I soon located my birth mother and after a shaky beginning, we now have a great relationship. She was the one who told me about my father - Gary Norman Young. He was a Navy corpsman and he volunteered to serve over in Vietnam. It was after he left that my mother discovered she was pregnant, but decided not to tell Gary in a letter. She was planning on meeting him on his R&R, but he was killed 3 weeks prior to this, never knowing he was about to have a child. He was only 20 years old. Two months later, I was born. Alone, overcome with grief, and only 21 herself, my birth mother made the painful decision to give her baby up for adoption. She and Gary had not been married and she felt a family could provide the child she was carrying a better chance at life than she could as a single mother.
The only thing my mother had left in regards to my father was his obituary from our local newspaper. It stated that he had been killed in a helicopter accident while on a recovery mission, but that wasn’t enough information for me. I needed to know more about both my father and exactly what had happened to him.
I decided to try my luck on the internet. Not too long after that, I located what was left of Gary’s family – his father and his younger brother. They were absolutely thrilled to have a part of Gary left in this world and welcomed me with open arms. From them, I was able to learn more about my father and who he had been, but it turned out that even they didn’t really know much more about how he had died or about his time in Vietnam. They did have a box of Gary’s possessions, which they gave to me. Going through the box was like starting to put together the pieces of a puzzle. I was soon able to put together a timeline of his tour in country from the letters he had sent back to his family.
Gary went to Vietnam in September of 1968 and was stationed at the dispensary in Da Nang. But what he really wanted to do was fly. Getting his wings was his main goal. He tried for 5 months to get transferred to a helicopter unit, but it wasn’t until the last week of January in 1969 that he got sent to MAG-16. He was so excited knowing he would soon be flying! On February 7th, he finally got his wish and began flying medevac missions. But that one day was all he got. He was killed on just his 8th mission.
Learning this little bit of information only made me want to know more, so back to the internet I went. For almost 2 years, I kept searching with no success. Then I was finally pointed to the website of Pop A Smoke. I began to send out inquiry letters to a few of the members, not sure of what I was doing or if I was going to offend anyone with my search. I was very nervous about the whole thing. But from the very start, I received responses from some wonderful people who encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing and declared that I would eventually discover what I was looking for, if I just kept at it. So I kept writing – hundreds of letters actually. In the beginning, I really didn’t think I would get much response. I knew the chances of finding someone that knew my father from the short period of 7 days at MAG-16 were slim and why would anyone answer if they hadn’t known my father? But to my complete astonishment, the responses came pouring in. And in and in. To date, I have received almost 1,000 emails, letters and phone calls. It’s been overwhelming and surpassed my wildest hopes.
In my mind, I categorize the responses into 3 different groups. Many of you in this room fall into one of these categories.
The first group is the veterans who didn’t know anything about my father or his accident. You were either from different squadrons or weren’t even in Vietnam at the same time as my father. These were the letters that surprised me the most, I think. I wouldn’t have expected you to bother writing me back, but you did in enormous numbers. And while you may not have known my father, you helped me out more than you can imagine. What you did was teach me both about Vietnam and also just how Corpsmen fit into the picture.
It made me recall when I first told my brother Geoff about my birth father. Geoff served in the Marines for 4 years in the early 90s even going over to Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War. I thought he would be excited to hear that my father had also served in a war. Before I showed him the newspaper clipping, I said, “My dad was in the service too. He was in the Navy.” At this, Geoff just rolled his eyes and said, “Oh Stephanie, did he have to be a Squid?” But he took the newspaper clipping from my hand and when he was finished reading it, he looked up at me and said, “Your dad was a Corpsman, Stephanie. He wasn’t a Squid, he was a Marine.” Now, 4 years later, I truly understand what he meant.
I was so ignorant about all of this but I now had the best teachers in the world – those who were there. The words written about Corpsmen were so touching and poignant. I had had no idea how highly-thought of Corpsmen were by the Marines. It took these letters for me to understand just how special that relationship is.
The second group consists of veterans who didn’t know my father or much about the accident, but what you did know were the men that died with my father. There were many of you that wrote to me with stories, pictures and anecdotes about the other 5 crewmembers. It made me think that there might others out there in the same situation as me – looking for answers as to what happened. I spent many months tracking down the families of the other crewmembers and shared with them all the wonderful things said about their loved ones. There are many, many people that this information has brought great comfort to. I want you to know that the families and friends of Ernie Bartolina, Russ Moke, Chuck Miller, Rodney Shank and Rip Tyrrell will be forever grateful and send their thanks to you.
The last group is that small number of veterans who knew my father and were with the Purple Foxes the day of my father’s death. Even though I know just how difficult it has been to bring up the memories of such an awful day, you still came through for me. From Jim Bandish – a crewmember on the wingman chopper, Greg Tomaro – the lone survivor of my father’s crash, the members of Courtney Payne’s recovery team and those back at Marble Mountain that day either in the ready room listening to it all or dealing with the aftermath, I have been able to piece together exactly what happened before, during and after that medevac mission. I’ve learned how many men risked their lives to try and rescue those lost, even when they knew it was hopeless, emphasizing that age-old tradition that combat Marines never leave behind wounded comrades, and attempt to recover their dead as well. I’ve learned what a great loss this was to the Purple Foxes and MAG-16. In addition to losing 4 members of your squadron, you lost 2 Docs in one day, which was absolutely devastating. I know it wasn’t easy for any of you to talk about it, but the fact that you did this for me, means more than I can ever say.
I have learned what great fortune it was for me for my father to have been flying with the Purple Foxes that day. Many men from other squadrons expressed their admiration of your unit. You are a very respected and highly regarded group and I’ve been told many times that other Marines longed to have been with your unit. One of the highest honors I’ve ever had came the day Col. Brady called me up personally to welcome me as a member of the Purple Fox family.
One of Gary’s greatest sources of pride was in “taking care of his Marines.” He mentioned this over and over in his letters. To quote him from one of his tapes….
“Marines over here treat the corpsmen just great, ‘cause the way they figure it, if anything happens to us, you know, who’s going to take care of them? But seriously, they really respect the rate of the corpsmen, it’s unbelievable. It really makes us feel good and we do as much as we can for them too.”
I know how happy Gary is sitting up there watching all of his Marines now take care of his little girl.
To be so openly accepted by all of you has been one of the best experiences of my life. While I can never get my father back, I have many new family members now. I have certainly been adopted once again by so many of you. You have helped more than I will ever be able to express. So right now, the best way I know how is to just say “thank you” and “welcome home.”
Back Browser or Home