When retired Army Col. James M. Drake thinks about his service in Vietnam, the biggest thing that stands out in his mind was the homecoming.
He was on the last “Freedom Bird” flight from DaNang to Accord Air Force Base. Activity at DaNang was winding down, and everyone still there would be flying into Los Angeles, he said.
“The reporters came out, but they weren’t there to greet us,” he said. “They were there to not treat us kindly. … They were there to heckle us.”
Despite that, Drake said he is not bitter of the way they were treated.
“But it made a big impact on my life, and I think that’s why I’m so pro-veteran now,” he said.
Drake said he was very lucky compared with so many who were involved in that conflict.
He served in a maintenance platoon with the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company on Marble Mountain Airfield just outside DaNang, and said he had good experiences there.
“It was war, and I carried a gun,” he said, but it was toward the end, so it had quieted down quite a bit. “I didn’t get shot at and I didn’t shoot anybody.”
It’s fantastic how soldiers returning from deployments are greeted now, said Drake, who is the guest speaker for Sunday’s Veterans Day Dinner at the National Guard Armory and for the program that immediately follows Monday’s Veterans Day Parade. He said he goes to every homecoming he can.
“When the soldiers come back now, we give them a freedom salute and welcome them with open arms. There are all kinds of programs to help them,” Drake said. “They go over there and they put their lives on the line. It helps for them to come back to open arms rather than what we came back to. It’s just a different experience completely, which is a good thing.”
Drake, a 1969 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in political science and minor in history and a distinguished ROTC graduate, was commissioned as an Army 2nd lieutenant in Field Artillery, and his experience in that capacity included his time in 1971 and ‘72 in Vietnam.
Drake resigned his commission to join the Kentucky National Guard as a full time operations officer for the 1st Battalion 623rd Field Artillery, serving in numerous staff positions that included executive officer during his eight years with the battalion – all in Glasgow.
They had no deployments during that time, he said, but it was “really an exciting time for the 623rd.”
This was during the late 1970s to early ‘80s – still part of the Cold War era – and the battalion was given a high priority, he said.
“They gave us more people to maintain our readiness, so we could go anywhere and fight,” Drake said. “Everything was clicking on all the cylinders.”
The number of paid employees increased from less than 20 to approximately 55 in a matter of two to three years because of that priority status, he said.
“The toughest thing was getting to the 100 percent and keeping 100 percent of the personnel status in the unit, and keeping those slots filled. Once we got that accomplished, everything else fell into place,” Drake said. “It was a lot of hard work but a lot of fun. We had to do all the recruiting ourselves. No one was sending us people.”
Along the way, he recalled that they received the Milton A. Reckord Award, presented annually to an outstanding battalion- or squadron-sized units in each of seven regions, five or six times during that period, which was “quite an achievement.”
“I was just a part of that, just a member of the team, but we had a really good team,” Drake said. “I was very fortunate to get to stay there for eight years. That was just a great situation and I worked with a lot of really great people.”
In 1987, he transferred to Frankfort, where he served in the aviation brigade, field artillery brigade, and he retired as director of military personnel.
In those first positions, he said, “It wasn’t the same as being in the 623. The 623rd was the best unit I’ve served in by far. … It’s always better at the unit level than it is at the higher headquarters. You get to work with the people more. … You know what your mission is. At the 623rd, we all knew what our mission was and we were able to work toward that.”
The position he retired from, however, was “very rewarding, because once again, I was able to work with people.”
Drake’s awards include the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Device, Army Commendation Medal, Master Aviator Badge, Air Assault Badge and Ranger Tab.
After retiring from his military career, he accepted various positions with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, including in the Department of Military Affairs, Department of Veterans Affairs, the latter of which he called “probably the second-best job I ever had,” because he got to meet with and help veterans.
“Most veterans, all they wanted you to do is listen to them,” he said.
He got to help develop the Silver Star license plates for recipients of the Silver Star medal.
“There was no list of them, so we had to go find them,” he said, adding that he was able to help present them to 18 or 20 veterans. “Reading what those guys did to earn that award was fantastic.”
Also during his tenure with the DVA, two nursing homes and a cemetery dedicated to veterans were started.
From there, he went to the Department of Transportation, from which he recently retired.
For the last 10 years, he’s been flying helicopters for the state, he said, supporting the Department of Fish and Wildlife with eagle and goose surveys, working with environmental agencies monitoring surface mining and mountaintop removal, and helping the Kentucky State Police hunt for marijuana.
Drake, now in his second retirement, and his wife Ruth, a Barren County native, reside outside Frankfort.
When asked whether this retirement will stick, he immediately said “yes,” then paused.
“Well, as far as I know,” he said. “The grandkids are a lot of fun, and I’m getting to play some golf. And we’re doing some traveling.”
He and his wife recently went on a 10-day trip “out West” to several national parks.
“I’m just thrilled at the opportunity to come back to Glasgow and speak at this dinner and the parade,” Drake said.
Sunday evening’s speech will be a bit more formal with a veteran theme, and he expects to include some thoughts on why he initially got involved with military service and the values instilled him by his father, a World War II veteran.
Monday’s talk after the parade will be briefer and focus on some of his memories regarding challenges faced in getting veterans recognition plaques placed downtown.
“That was a huge deal,” he said.
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