by Audrey Thomasson
WASHINGTON, D.C—Promising to put “America first,” Republican Donald John Trump on January 20 was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.
While many folks watched the ceremony unfold on television or computer, a few of their neighbors had a “front row seat.”
After a distinguished career in the U.S. Army, retired helicopter pilot Jesse Dize’s 26-year service was honored last Friday when he participated with other pilots in the inaugural parade.
“It’s something to put on one’s bucket list,” said the Northumberland County native and hometown hero.
“They were hailed as heroes by the parade announcer, who said they were all award-winning combat veterans,” said Dize’s wife, Sheila, who was seated at Pennsylvania and Madison avenues with other wives for the parade. “It did us good as wives. We’ve never had that before.”
Connie Henderson of Kilmarnock and Michael Crowther of White Stone were volunteers directing crowds while Dize rode down Pennsylvania Avenue in a Huey helicopter.
Salute to Vietnam veterans
The inaugural parade saluted veterans from all branches of the service. Among those honored were 30 men of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association’s North Carolina Chapter, including Dize.
Deployed to Ninh-hoa, Vietnam, in April 1971, Dize flew combat assaults extending into Laos and Cambodia and supported South Korea.
Because Vietnam’s thick jungle growth made it impossible to detect the enemy on the ground, he said, “We did “sniffer” missions…for fire detection” in order to locate enemy camps below.
The pilots’ jobs also included flying troops in and out of battle zones and what Dize called “ash and trash” supply missions delivering food, the “Stars and Stripes” newspapers and mail. Dize had a close call when a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) prematurely exploded, wounding him with shrapnel.
His efforts earned him three distinguished flying cross medals, two bronze stars and the Legion of Merit, according to his wife.
The 30 pilots who participated in Friday’s inaugural event had a total of 22,000 combat hours, said Dize.
The men began gathering in the Pentagon parking lot at 2 a.m. Friday where they were subjected to searches by dogs and security officials before getting a Capitol Police motorcycle escort into Washington. They towed six helicopters through the Capital streets, including the Huey (UH-1H), considered the work horse of Vietnam. It carries a blue star, the symbol of the 48th Assault Helicopter Company assigned to Vietnam from November 1965 through August 1972, one of the longest combat records of any Army aviation unit, he noted.
Their escort led them down several city streets that were blocked off, forcing them to turn the six choppers around with each wrong turn before finally reaching their destination for the start of the parade.
While waiting for the start, Dize said he met people from around the world. “I met a Navajo code talker from World War II and the Army honor guard serving in Arlington National Cemetery.”
“The parade was two hours late due to the demonstrators,” he said. While the demonstrators weren’t visible, they could be heard. “Someone told me there were newspaper ads offering $1,600 to anyone who turned out to demonstrate.”
Despite the rain and delay, the streets were filled with people and law enforcement officers from across the nation including Virginia, Texas, North Carolina and Indiana.
“I’m glad I did it, but I’ll never do it again,” said Dize, who returned to the hotel at 10 p.m. “We had fun touring Washington at night. We saw a lot of people in gowns and tuxedos.”
Event volunteers were subjected to Secret Service clearance, several advance training sessions and security checks on the big day.
“They wouldn’t allow anyone to bring in anything like selfie sticks or umbrellas,” said Crowther, who received an invitation to volunteer from the inaugural committee.
“Most of the other volunteers worked in the campaign, so I don’t know how they got my name,” he said.
Assigned to a seated section fairly close to the podium where the oath of office was given, Crowther’s job was to check tickets and direct people to their seats.
“I enjoyed the excitement of being there live,” he said. “Contrary to what was reported, there was a sea of people there. The place was full by the time of the swearing in.”
Henderson was invited to participate as a Trump supporter.
“I was stationed at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue where I could direct the dignitaries to their seats for the parade later that day,” she said. However, after the parade delay she was reassigned to the White House security area. “I was so excited because that gave me permission to go where most could not.”
When protestors approached the Veterans Affairs Building where Henderson was having lunch, the building was put on lockdown and volunteers were sent to the basement until the protestors passed.
“I had never seen so much security,” she said. “So many military people and police from all over the country were on the ground and snipers on the roofs. A helicopter circled the area continuously.”
Henderson was lucky enough to be very close to the Presidential Viewing Station, so she was only a few feet away when President Trump and Vice President Michael R. Pence arrived.
Crowther and Henderson enjoyed their experience, felt they were treated well and said they would do it all again.
“I was there. I saw history in the making,” said Henderson.