Paying Respect to Veterans

By Joyce West | 6/21/17 9:37 PM

This Veterans Day program looks at one of the nation’s largest flag retirement ceremonies, which is held in Jefferson County by the Jeffersontown American Legion. We learn more about the life of Willa Brown Chappell, a Glasgow native who broke barriers as an African-American female pilot. We meet Pete Harry of Christian County, a Vietnam veteran who makes saddles by hand. And Doug Flynn visits Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond to discover why this university is one of the top destinations for veterans.

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Flag Retirement
Every June, a plume of smoke can be seen rising from a farm just outside Jeffersontown. That smoke is from a huge flag retirement ceremony held by the American Legion GI Joe Post 244 in Jeffersontown. About 25,000 U.S. flags from all over the nation are retired in this solemn ceremony, the largest such ceremony in the nation.

“We call them tattered and worn,” said Don Linton of the American Legion Post. “They have done their duty for their country, they have served their purpose, and so we give them an honorable finish to their life.”

Post service officer John Dee Wright said the ceremony, held at dusk, is observed according to American Legion protocol.  A statement is read at the ceremony, saying, in part, “It is the flag for all of us alike. Let us accord it honor and loyalty.”

A smaller, symbolic flag is inspected by the sergeant at arms and then that flag is used to ignite the entire blaze.

“Many of these flags have served overseas in battle,” said Linton. “And when you’re retiring a flag that somebody lost their life over to defend this country and its principles, especially freedom, you know, it’s an awful good feeling.”

The ceremony is performed at the farm of Hugh Colbert. “If you have never seen a flag retirement, you should,” he said. “If it doesn’t give you cold chills down your back, there’s something wrong with you.”

Occasionally a flag of historical value is found and preserved by the post. A 48-star flag from World War II is one such flag. Post 244 has also started a program to save embroidered stars from the retired flags so they can continue to be part of flags.

The ceremony also serves as an opportunity for the veterans to remember those who served the nation in war.

“All of us who served … we have our own memories that come back,” said Linton. “Ones that we have lost, and ones who did not, who were not able, to come home, get married, have children and live their lives as we did.”

More than 1,100 military-affiliated students study on campus at Eastern Kentucky University.  EKU has been ranked in the top three “Best for Vets” colleges in the nation by Military Times, in four of the last five years.

The school has a Veterans Affairs “Success on Campus” counselor, Steve Johnson, who is focused on counseling and vocational rehabilitation. Bryan Cole, director of military and veteran affairs at EKU, said the college’s recruitment and retention efforts, including tutoring, counseling and advising, and housing assistance, make EKU stand apart from other universities.

EKU also has outreach efforts for veterans. Two recent initiatives at EKU are a bereavement group for families of veterans that have committed suicide, and grief counseling on Saturdays for female veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Each Veterans Day, EKU leads the nation in the National Roll Call. Cole said the event starts on campus at 6 a.m. on Nov. 11.

“We have volunteers that read the names of every service member that has died in service since 9/11,” said Cole. “It’s a moving ceremony. We have people that come to read family members’ names that they’ve lost. And I take the opportunity – I served with six people that died in Afghanistan, so I take the opportunity to read those names.” He also reads the name of a lieutenant he instructed in officer training who died in Iraq.

Willa Brown Chappell
Willa Brown Chappell was the first African-American woman to be licensed to fly in the United States and the first African-American officer in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol. She also was a licensed and certified mechanic.

Born in 1906 in Glasgow of a white mother and African-American father, Willa Brown grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. She got a bachelor’s degree in business from Indiana Teachers College. She then taught school in Gary, Indiana, and later became a social worker in Chicago.

A chance encounter with pilot Cornelius Coffey changed her life. “She fell in love with this idea of aviation,” said Sandra Campbell, who gives presentations about the aviation pioneer as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

Willa Brown trained with Coffey. In 1937, she got an MBA from Northwestern University in Chicago – and she also earned her pilot’s license.

Brown and Coffey married and started an aviation school on the south side of Chicago, the first private flight training academy in the nation. She also became a catalyst for the eventual integration of the armed services, said Campbell.

“It was Willa who got the idea, along with Cornelius, that maybe they could get the government to allow blacks to get pilot’s licenses and maybe even serve in the military as pilots,” said Campbell.

She trained hundreds of pilots, many of whom went on to become Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American aviators in the U.S. armed forces.

“She cracked a pretty strong whip,” said Ron Spriggs, a historian of the Tuskegee Airmen.  “She was a no-nonsense administrator, a no-nonsense instructor. She would get all up in guys’ faces, bigger than she was. She would say, ‘Hey, you can do this.’ … She had to be tough around men, maybe because of her gender.”

The aviation school closed in 1945. In 1946, she became the first African American women to run for Congress. She lost the race, but she remained active in social causes for the rest of her life.

In 1955, she married the Rev. J.H. Chappell of Chicago. She taught in Chicago public schools until she retired, and died in 1992 at the age of 86.

“I think what she wanted to show was that you can do anything, be anything, that you set your mind to,” said Campbell.

Spriggs said he wished he could have sat down with her and listened to her life story from her personally. “I would be awestruck,” he said. “To me, she’s a rock star.”

Pete Harry
Pete Harry of Pembroke in Christian County has loved horses since childhood, as well as their saddles and equipment.

“Even today when I watch a Western movie, I spend more time looking at the horses and looking at the equipment than I do listening to the storyline,” he said with a chuckle.

This Vietnam War veteran decided in the late 1970s to do saddle making full time, and thus was born Pete’s Custom Saddlery.

He is largely self-taught. “I grew up around this business but I was never satisfied with what I knew. I always wanted to know more,” he said.

He took classes that also applied to saddle making, including silver working. He went to an engraving school in Kansas and started engraving guns.  “Which led to gunsmithing school. One thing just kind of leads to another.”

Harry calls saddle making a dying art. “Saddles are basically made in factories, just like automobiles. They’re assembly line produced – very few custom saddle makers actually do everything from start to finish right in their shops,” he said.

Harry said factory saddles are built on standard trees, or frames. “In other words, they assume every horse is exactly the same,” he said. “And that’s not true. Just like people all have different conformation, they look different, saddles fit differently on different horses.”

Harry said a saddle should be comfortable not only for the rider, but the horse as well. The horse will not perform to his maximum capability without a saddle that feels comfortable to the animal, Harry said. “He’s only going to perform to the point that it starts hurting,” he said.

The tree is the foundation of making the saddle. The first thing Harry does is look at the horse. Then he takes a tree and sets it on the horse’s back. “It’ll either fit or it won’t fit,” he said.

He does fiberglass molds of horse’s backs for horses that have irregular problems, and then makes saddle modifications to fit the horse.

“When you get into custom made saddles, you got a piece of equipment that takes good care of your animal and it takes good care of you,” he said.

As a veteran, Harry did all the repair work at the huge riding stable at nearby Fort Campbell. “I worked with Special Forces teaching them about packing with pack horses and how to pack, what to pack,” he said. “And this was before they went into Afghanistan. Because a number of these people over there in Special Forces are riding horses.”

Harry has a school where he trains others in his techniques. “I have people come from all over the world,” he said, and almost every state in the country.

His school is Veterans Affairs approved, he said. Many of the veterans who come to the school have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. “It’s a common problem. And there’s just something about working with your hands that is soothing,” he said.

Harry loves being able to pass on his skills. “Once you’re able to work leather, you can basically do anything in the world with it,” he said.

He makes leather-covered bottles, adding silver and beadwork. He also has built reproductions of leather trunks, adding Native American designs as embellishments.

“I do a lot of museum pieces,” he said. “People literally ship this stuff in from everywhere. And you look at it and you think about what it looked like when it was brand new.”

If there’s enough left to find the pattern, Harry can restore the item to its original state. “And it’s fully functional.”

He also builds side saddles. He began with restoration work, and now builds side saddles for a company in New Jersey.

The craft has become an addiction, he said. “You’re never satisfied, you always want the next one to be better,” he said. “And you’re always looking to create something that no one else has done.”