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Here's why Vietnam veteran Stan Cass started Honor Flight Northern Colorado

A group of veterans who flew to Washington, D.C., on an flight courtesy Honor Flight Northern Colorado in 2012.

HONOR FLIGHT NORTHERN COLORADO VIA FACEBOOK

By TOMMY WOOD | Greeley Tribune | Published: November 19, 2017

GREELEY, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Near the end of his second tour flying helicopters in the Vietnam War, Stan Cass learned of something so unusual he was amazed it could endure a war that killed nearly 2 million people: a leper colony partway up the coastal Highway 1 between Cass' airbase at Da Nang and the city of Hue.

One of Cass' comrades told him about the colony, which was run by missionaries. With little to do as U.S. forces drew down, Cass started ferrying the colony anything the army could spare in his helicopter. Every time Cass touched down at the colony, the missionaries thanked him with a fresh-baked pumpkin pie.

"I don't know where in the hell they got the pumpkins," Cass said.

The Briggsdale native, now 84 years old, left Vietnam with some fond memories, even though the war still haunts him. He was one of that war's more fortunate veterans. Cass' army career lasted 29 years. After Vietnam, he led the development of the Hellfire missile system, still used by the military today, and retired a colonel. He lives in an expansive house on the outskirts of Eaton, with a deck that has a view of the Front Range, and his family still has its farm near Briggsdale.

A lot of Cass' comrades weren't so lucky. They came home to a country that wanted nothing to do with them. A lot of them didn't have the master's degree that helped Cass get prestigious jobs after he returned. Cass founded Honor Flight Northern Colorado in 2008 for them.

Twice a year, Honor Flight takes more than 100 veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit the war memorials. The chapter Cass founded wasn't the first Honor Flight chapter, but it was the first to work with significant numbers of Vietnam veterans. Getting them to the memorials and seeing the closure it brings them, Cass said, "is pretty damn satisfying."

Cass' family grew wheat until the price dropped, then switched to forage crops. He graduated from Briggsdale High School with little idea of what to do with himself. Then he heard about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The highest level of math Cass took in Briggsdale was arithmetic, so he attended Colorado A&M — now Colorado State — for two years, got himself up to speed, and got into West Point.

He graduated in 1957 but almost didn't get his commission. At his graduation ceremony, the cadets decided to break into a dead sprint out of their ordered march across the parade ground. The commandant was furious. He wanted to deny every cadet in Cass' class their commission. Cass spent several tense hours wondering if the last four years of his life would have been for naught. Then, because the army had "wasted enough money on us already," the commandant acquiesced. Cass graduated with his commission and joined army aviation.

His first posts were in France and Germany, and he loved those places. Then came Nov. 14, 1965, the day everything changed in Vietnam, when U.S. forces and those of North Vietnam fought each other in sustained combat for the first time. It was a tactical harbinger for and a microcosm of the entire war. And when Cass heard about that, he knew that was where he had to be.

His first tour started in 1966. Cass' job was to fly over landing zones in his helicopter and "tear the hell out of it" with rockets so infantry could land safely. Cass was there until 1967, then came home to pursue a masters' degree at Texas A&M. He was about to publish his thesis in 1972 when the army called and said it needed him back in Vietnam within a week. He hurriedly published, moved his family to Hawaii and got to Ho Chi Minh City — then called Saigon — the capitol of South Vietnam.

From there, Cass was sent to Da Nang, where he commanded an air cavalry fleet of about 300 helicopters. It was his dream job. That's where a lot of his fond memories, like eating pumpkin pie with missionaries at a leper colony, come from. It's also where he came millimeters from dying.

He was sent on a mission one morning to knock out an outpost of the North Vietnamese army. Cass flew north toward Hue, up Highway 1, which was littered with burning cars, burning tanks and bombed-out buildings.

As Cass neared the outpost in his helicopter, he came under a withering fire. The outpost had a 120-millimeter gun, which had a longer range than the rockets on his chopper. Cass' bird was on fire before he got close enough to shoot. The fire spread inside the cockpit, and his crew chief scrambled to put it out as Cass made passes at the outpost, punching off rockets while trying to dodge the 120. He made one last run, low and fast, fired his last rockets and lingered long enough to see the explosions and bodies flying out of the trenches.

Then they had to get home. The chopper barely made it back to Da Nang, but they wouldn't have been safe had they landed anywhere else. When Cass landed, he realized how precarious his situation had been: A round had punched straight through the middle of the helicopter's driveshaft. Had it hit anywhere but dead center, the chopper would have been un-flyable, and he probably wouldn't be here.

North Vietnam launched a massive offensive in spring 1975. It had swept down to Da Nang by the end of March. The army of South Vietnam disintegrated and U.S. personnel were forced to evacuate. Cass was on the last plane out. Even then, he believed the war was just, and seeing the throngs of crying civilians desperate for a way out reinforced his conviction. It is his worst memory of the war.

"We said, 'If you need us, call us, and we'll come,' " Cass said. "But that didn't happen."

Cass spent seven years working at the Pentagon after he came home. It was there he developed the Hellfire missile system, which still is the primary air-to-ground missile of the U.S. military. He was a few months short of his 30th year in the army when he got a call from home — his dad couldn't handle the family farm by himself anymore. So Cass retired in 1986 and came back to northern Colorado. He enjoyed working the farm, but he wanted something more.

Then his daughter told him about Honor Flight. Cass got together with officials from local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts and started the northern Colorado chapter.

The veterans muster on a Sunday morning for the flight to Washington, D.C. Veterans from different wars are sat next to each other whenever possible, Cass said, and one of his favorite parts of Honor Flight is hearing people from different generations connect over their shared bond.

They land Sunday night and have a dinner and a keynote speaker. On Monday, they hit all the memorials — the Marine Corps War Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial Wall, the National WWII Memorial — then fly back Monday night.

Since its inception, Honor Flight Northern Colorado has flown nearly 3,000 veterans to the war memorials in Washington, D.C. using nearly $3 million in private donations. Cass said it's flown nearly all living WWII and Korean War veterans in the area.

Stories like this are why he can't give it up: About two years ago, Cass got a call from a woman who wanted her Vietnam-veteran husband to go on an Honor Flight. He was in bad health, though, and she wasn't sure he could travel. Cass visited their home with a doctor, who cleared the man to fly, and Cass gave him an Honor Flight hat and blanket.

"That really whipped him up," Cass said.

Two days before the flight was supposed to leave, Cass got another call from the man's wife. She told him her husband had died.

When the group reached the Vietnam Memorial Wall, which bears the names of the 58,318 Americans who died or went missing during the war, she was there. She'd paid her own way. And she ran down to the end of the wall and stopped where her husband's name would be.

Now the flights are filled mostly with veterans from Vietnam. Once they've gone, Cass isn't sure what will become of Honor Flight. It's open to veterans from the First Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq, but few of them come. All he knows is he wants to run it until he can't. Then Stan Cass will take an Honor Flight as a veteran.

©2017 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.)
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