Clark veterans, families share stories of service

Published 2:09 pm Friday, November 10, 2017

According to the Census Bereau, there are nearly 20 million veterans living the U.S., and each year, on Nov. 11, the nation sets aside a day dedicated to their honor and the memory of those who have passed.

Veterans Day recognitions span nearly 100 years to a time when an armistice went into effect during World War I. Fighting ceased Nov. 11, 1918. And every year after, Armistice Day was celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month — until 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower changed the national holiday to Veterans Day to encompass and honor veterans of all American wars.

Today, Americans still take this day each year to give thanks, participate in special ceremonies honoring our armed forces and provide a platform for these brave men and women to share their experiences and their stories.

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What follows are the stories of two local veterans who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars, respectively, and the mother of a current Marine.

Don Henry

Don Henry, U.S. Navy 

Don Henry said he didn’t know what he wanted to do when he was drafted into the U.S. Navy in 1951.

The native of Benham in eastern Kentucky had started at Berea College but transferred to the University of Illinois with the goal of playing football.

After struggling to join the football team as a walk on, Henry joined the school’s ROTC program.

Then Henry got his draft notice, meaning he would follow his brothers into the service.

In February 1951, Henry boarded a train to cross the country for boot camp in San Diego.

Nine weeks later, he was assigned to the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer named for five brothers who died when the USS Juneau was torpedoed in Guadalcanal in 1942.

Henry became a machinists mate, working in one of the ship’s two engine rooms.

“We went to Korea in 1952,” he said, as part of a battle group including the battleships USS Iowa and USS Missouri and aircraft carriers USS Essex and USS Midway. For about eight months, Henry said they alternated between Korea and Japan, with 30 days in Korea and about 10 days in Japan to recuperate.

Henry’s time in the Korean theater was fairly uneventful, he said.

“We were fired on one time,” he said. “I was in the engine room at the time. You try and maneuver so they had a hard time hitting you.”

The other danger in the waters of Korea were mines.

“There were a lot of mines around Korea,” he said. “We always had minesweepers before us, but they’d miss one or two.”

While they were at sea, Henry and his shipmates worked in shifts of four hours on duty and eight off.

In the often frigid climate around the 38th parallel, working in the engine room wasn’t a bad place to be, he said.

“When you’re in Korea, it’s very cold,” he said. “I had a good position in the engine room. It stayed warm.”

After leaving Korea in early 1953, Henry and the group cruised around the world for the next couple years. There were training stops in Cuba and stops in Hong Kong, present-day Sri Lanka, India, Greece, the French Riviera, Gibraltar and Italy.

“It was an great life,” Henry said. “I loved going to new places…”

Henry, who married his first wife Doris while on leave in 1953, was honorably discharged in February 1955, and enrolled at the University of Kentucky where he earned a degree in soil and plant science. He worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service for the rest of his career, eventually settling in Winchester in 1977. Henry retired in 1989 after 36 years, but continued to volunteer for several more years.

Wilson McComas

Wilson McComas, U.S. Navy

A decade after Henry joined the Navy to see action in Korea, Wilson McComas was a student at the University of Kentucky.

“I graduated from UK with a ROTC commission in 1961 and remained in the Army until 1987,” McComas said. “(ROTC) was mandatory for two years for all male students. It remained mandatory until the 1970s.”

McComas entered as a second lieutenant and was generally in the military police branch of the Army for his career.

“I think I enjoyed the challenge the military gave me as a young man,” he said. “I think that was the big thing. The other thing was part of the adventure and doing so many things you’d never have the opportunity to do.”

A native of Russell in eastern Kentucky, McComas was assigned to a number of posts throughout the world, including Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Fort Knox, the military academy at West Point and two and a half years in Europe with NATO.

“In 26 years, we did 16 moves,” he said.

His service also included two tours in Vietnam, first in 1967-68 with an infantry unit and again in 1972 based in Saigon as part of the provost marshal’s staff.

“I would have gone back a year earlier but I had a job as an aide to a command general,” he said, which was a mandatory one-year assignment.

The two tours were drastically different.

“My first tour was strictly combat operations,” he said. “My second was more administrative.

“The big problem with Vietnam was you’re away from your family. The responsibility you have to make sure the people in your command, determine needs and support to do their job, that’s your primary function.”

For a time, McComas served as the pay officer for his company, thought the duties usually fell to someone of a lesser rank. It was a way to stay connected with those in his command, which were spread out among four bases and 120 miles.

“That way I could get a helicopter and get out and meet them and see what they needed,” he said.

A lot of those relationships continue today, he said.

“The interpersonal relationships that carry on to today is the biggest thing,” he said. “Combat is combat. It’s a huge trust. I don’t think that’s changed any to today.”

Following his retirement, McComas spent a decade as the police chief at the University of Kentucky. He and his wife Pam moved to Winchester following his retirement.

Melissa Burkhart with her son, Lance Cpl. Chase Conway, USMC

Melissa Burkhart, mother of Chase Conway, USMC

Chase Conway always wanted to go into the military. There was no doubt of that, his mother Melissa Burkhart said.

“We always knew Chase had big dreams of being in the military,” she said. “We knew we’d be dealing with it. There was a thought that maybe he’d change his mind.”

Then came the time when Chase signed up to join the Marine Corps.

“It was a difficult conversation,” she said. “We essentially had the conversation of ‘This is your dream I’ll support what you’re going to do.’”

The reality of situations the military faces forced another tough conversation.

“You’re going to come back to me fine or with issues or maimed in some way or in a coffin,” she said. “We faced those facts right up front. We discussed what he wanted to do. He was proud to be able to serve his country. That’s all he said he ever wanted to do.”

That was two years ago when Conway joined the USMC. As he went through basic training and several training schools since then, Burkhart has struggled through times when she couldn’t communicate with Chase as much as she would like.

“During boot camp was the hardest part of my existence so far,” she said. “We watched him get on the bus and got that last hug.”

For 13 weeks while Conway was learning to be a Marine, Burkhart was home, coping with the loss. Joining a couple support groups on Facebook helped, she said, including occasional photos from Conway’s group.

“That helped a lot,” she said. “You don’t know what they’re going through. I scoured those (photos) for the entire 13 weeks.”

There were photos that included Conway, including one of him exiting the building after training with gases.

“He had that look of ‘I did it,’” she said. “I said, ‘That’s my boy.’”

He’s presently stationed at Camp Pendleton in California as a lance corporal working as a bulk fuel engineer. He’s halfway through his four-year commitment and may be sent to Japan in the near future, she said.

“We’re pretty sure he’ll re-sign,” she said. “He’s in his element.”

As a military family, there’s a level of uncertainty that wasn’t there before.

“We never know what to expect or when he’s coming home,” she said.

Conway was home a couple months ago, she said, after a 14-month stretch without a visit. If he goes to Japan for two years, he would be home for 30 days before, she said. Those home visits are filled with family celebrations Conway missed while on duty.

“We don’t put much stock in the date (of family events) any more,” she said. “We make it work.”

As a new military family, Veterans Day has taken on a new meaning for Burkhart.

“(Veterans Day) has always had a significant importance but now it’s so much more because my son will be a veteran,” she said. “Now there’s always tears. Now it’s emotional.”

About Fred Petke

Fred Petke is a reporter for The Winchester Sun, the Jessamine Journal and the State Journal. His beats include cops, courts, fire, public records, city and county government and other news. To contact Fred, email or call 859-759-0051.

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