On Veterans Day: The Intersection of Lives and Missions in a Small World

By Purnell T. Cropper | November 11, 2011

By Lori Bauer

My eyes were drawn immediately to the service medals on Tim Zerbe’s uniform. Row after row of them.

My mind wandered. I wasn’t thinking of the theaters Zerbe had served in. I was thinking of the veterans’ accounts on this week’s History Channel series, Vietnam in HD: It’s not the war we know; it’s the war they fought, describing how it felt to walk off the plane in 1968, medals on their uniforms, proud to be home, confused by the scorn.

Army Captain Zerbe, U.S. Army Flight Training Company Commander, was at Arcadia University last night as one of five panelists for “A Conversation in Leadership” with Honors Program students. I asked about his service. Kosovo. Bosnia. Afghanistan. Iraq.

I think back to another campus visitor several weeks before. Slobodan Petrovic, Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo, visiting Arcadia between official stops at the White House and the United Nations. The highest ranking Serb in the Kosovo government, he described a young government developing the processes, systems and infrastructure that constitute an orderly society, one beginning to include the Serbs in southern Kosovo. Voting. Students in Arcadia’s master’s degree program in the International Peace and Conflict Resolution listened intently and asked questions.

In 1999, Zerbe began his active duty in the Medical Service Corps assigned to the 10th Mountain Division. He deployed to Kosovo and Bosnia, where he assisted with medical support to NATO and advised Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in medical humanitarian relief through 2003. Flight school followed. In 2005, he was deployed to support Operation Iraqi Freedom as an Air Ambulance Commander.

In 2008, Zerbe was selected to be a commander and instructor pilot at the Eastern ARNG Aviation Training Site, where he now supervises more than 40 instructors. He is an instructor pilot in the UH-60 Blackhawk and the UH-72 Lakota helicopters. He and his instructors graduate more than 250 students each year.

Zerbe talks to the Honors students about leadership, career and “compromise,” blending the military career that he loves with a wife and children who evoke powerful emotions. Momentarily, he says, when he lost an engine and had to make a “hard landing” in Iraq, he thought only about his family, but his thoughts quickly returned to his other family—the soldiers who depended on him in Iraq.

Last week in Easton Hall, an IPCR student, in full military dress, had that same proud look I saw last night on Captain Zerbe. A veteran of the Iraqi theater, Brian Washington has returned to complete his graduate degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at Arcadia. He’s one of the first Iraqi amputees to be serving as a Naval police officer.

I wonder. Did Zerbe or one of the pilots or medics he commanded play a part in Washington’s rescue in Iraq?

In 1968, I spent Christmas at Disneyworld, an 8-year-old going round and round as the speaker played, “It’s a small world after all.” Three years later, in Laos, helicopter pilots are the casualties in the Vietnam conflict, their nametags turned upside down if they don’t return from a sortie, as Operation Lam Son 719 commences in Laos with only aerial and artillery support but no ground troops.

In 1975, Saigon falls, and 50,000 “at risk” Vietnamese are evacuated. I remember the scenes of many being airlifted by helicopter from the roof of the U.S. Embassy.

During the 1990s, I find myself in San Jose, Calif., home of the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. On a campus with 20,000 students, there are two Vietnamese student groups—and they are as disparate as North and South Vietnam had been during the war. San Jose State anthropology professor James Freeman publishes Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives, an oral project involving 14 Vietnamese refugees and their stories of immigration.

I spent the early part of 21st century in Chicago, where I met one of the children—now a grown man—airlifted off the roof in Saigon, grateful for the pilots who came back for his family.

On Veterans Day, I always think of my uncle, Lt. Charles E. Stahl. The family had two services for him. One before I was born when he was presumed dead after his fighter jet was shot down in the Korean War. The other a few years ago, my uncle having walked off one of the last planes out of Korea after several years as a POW.

This Veterans Day, I will also think of Zerbe, Washington, and IPCR student Tiffany Dalagelis, who served in Afghanistan. And that 1968 theme song before innocence was lost, “It is a small world after all,” Walt Disney’s message of global peace, a gift to the children of the world.