East Tennessee airman helps uncover mass grave

Marty Strones played a critical role in uncovering hidden history that dated back 50 years.

A veteran of the war in Vietnam traveled from East Tennessee back to Indochina to help his former enemy solve a mystery about a mass grave.

This spring, the decorated airman made a trip back to Vietnam to show recovery teams where to start digging on the grounds of a former American air base. 

"If things were reversed and it was one of my three sons that were missing, I'd want to know," Retired Air Force Colonel Marty Strones said.  

A bloody battle unfolded there in 1968 during the Tet offensive.  Hundreds of enemy soldiers attacked American troops stationed on an expansive base which, at the time, served as the busiest airport in the world.  It marked a signature fight for a number reasons.

"It was the only time in the history of American warfare...that everybody on the ground was Air Force and everybody in the air supporting us were Army helicopter pilots, there were nine helicopters that were involved," recalled Mr. Strones, who received the Silver Star for his bravery and leadership under fire.  

49 years later, the now-77-year-old retired colonel explained the event triggered the renewed interest in that battle at Bien Hoa Air Base and the hunt for the mass unmarked grave hidden in that ground for decades.

In addition to our on camera conversation, Marty Strones took time to answer the following questions about the influence his military service had on the rest of his life.

1.  What one person influenced you most in life?  

My mom most influenced my life and taught me self-reliance and to make a plan for life and stick to it.  My father worked the night shift for most of my time through college.  I had several senior officers in the military who aided development of my leadership skills, but when I look back on my entire life my mom gave me the key factors I needed to be successful.  My mom grew up on a small farm in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression and later in life was very successful in the Washington, D.C. area.

2.  Do you feel honored and respected for serving your country?

I feel very honored to have served my country in the military.  I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, usually working seven days a week to pay my expenses.  This created a great opportunity to learn self-reliance.  If my car did not run I had to fix it, if I needed books I had to earn sufficient money to buy them.  No loans were available and my parents were not in any position to help.  The day I received my commission as a USAF officer was to me a highlight in my life.  I have been fortunate to have served my country in war and at four other agencies engaged in protecting my country.

3.  How can people thank you for your service?

I often have people walk up to me and thank me for my service, mainly because of my license plates honoring me receiving the Silver Star.  I do the same when I see indication a person served.  It is important to me to honor fellow military personnel.

4.  How do you honor your fellow service men and women?

I always remember that all of us who have been in the military are on a team.  The team must function effectively to be successful in any military operation.  It has always been important to me as a military officer not to forget how important each person on my team is to the mission.  I always worked to know and communicate with everyone on my team and others who supported our efforts.  Today we have a network of enlisted and officers who still communicate as a team, we have reunions, and we are available to assist our present and former military team members. 

5. How do you think this generation of military men and women is different or similar to yours?

I was in the military when the draft supplied much of the military.  Today with the volunteer military, things are much different with more advanced equipment, many social issues, a different retirement system, changed medical healthcare approach, and in many cases more deployments, but much fewer base transfers.  Military service is much different today.

6.  What influence did your military service have on the rest of your life?

The main influence or impact on my life from the military has been in the areas of leadership and the belief you can be successful despite extremely difficult challenges, if you decide to work hard enough to be successful.  Surround yourself with smart people who have a dedicated work effort, and individuals who are completely honest in every aspect of their life.  People who are not afraid to tell you you are absolutely wrong and why.

7.  Does your family have a history of military service?

My family has really no history of military service, except for one uncle who I never knew, a naval officer killed in World War II.

8.  Would you encourage younger generations in your family to join the service?

I was a USAF counselor for admission to the USAF Academy in the state of New Mexico, as an extra duty while I served in three assignments in that state.  I worked with many young men and women to qualify to attend the USAF Academy.  It was very rewarding.  I encouraged my three sons to first be engineers.  My oldest son worked as an nuclear engineer at a US Navy submarine base, but I did not encourage them to join the military.  Two are successful engineers and the third in still in college perusing his engineering degree.

9.  How has your opinion of war changed?

My opinion concerning war has changed.  In Vietnam, I saw Washington politicians trying to direct a war from a distance.  I saw many many examples which prolonged and confused the conduct of war.  I could show many examples where Washington leaders created disasters for the individuals in war zones.  My opinion, if we go to war there must be a completely clear justification for us to be at war.  If we go to war you must go to win with primary direction being in the hands of the military on the ground.  I still remember how during WW2 the total population was impacted by the war effort, gas rationing, war bonds, etc etc.  Today a war can be going on and the majority of population is totally unconcerned and would never consider their lives being impacted or restricted.  I guess we will see how this works out if we are unfortunate to have another major war, which I hope we do not.  Today I completely understand that we must remain strong to stay safe and secure.  I do not support the military should be engaged in social experiences, we need to treat people equally for sure, but we know what it takes to be successful in all aspects of the military.  Standards, qualifications, and training we know and understand.

10.  How did your military experience shape your family?

The military has strongly strengthened my faith.  I believe a military member who has faith in his or her beliefs is a stronger soldier.  I do not care what the faith belief is but that they have a strong faith.  For me, I insist my church pray for the military in every service every week.  It is important for me to pray for members of the military.

11.  How did your military experience shape your family?

My military experienced shaped my family by enhancing my understanding of what was necessary to be successful.  I believe it enabled me to make decisions enhancing the success of my children.  My military career also gave me opportunities to assist many military members, since they are also my family, in ways to advance their future.  This would include many high school students I assisted who attended both the USAF Academy and other military academies and military prep schools.

© 2017 WBIR.COM


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