This year’s annual veterans breakfast, hosted by the Williamson County Republican Party, was the largest yet, with nearly 200 veterans and family members attending the event at the Embassy Suites in Cool Springs.
After American Legion Post 215 posted the colors, Ray White provided a brief history of the Pledge of Allegiance before leading the group in the pledge.
Lou Galterio followed and sang Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” before leading the group in the singing of the national anthem.
Mike Fletcher of the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office was the featured speaker
Fletcher, director of safety and security for the Williamson County School District, is a retired paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Heavy Weapons division.
“I decided at an early age that I wanted to be a paratrooper,” he said. “I really liked the hat. I thought it was a really cool hat.”
He also liked the uniform.
Fletcher joined the military right out of high school with the intention of making it a career. He thought he fulfilled his dream when he became a paratrooper attached to the 82nd Airborne based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
“Jumping out of an airplane in the United States military is awesome,” he said.
Unlike skydiving, which is a hobby, “I got paid to do it for a living.”
That is until March 23, 1994.
Fletcher called it a “beautiful spring day ... very clear and the winds were calm.”
A platoon sergeant was looking for someone to fill in on a jump and Fletcher, always eager to get jump time, jumped at the opportunity and headed to Pope Air Force Base. It ended up being a decision that would change his life.
After some training exercises, Fletcher and other paratroopers who were using the day to get in some jump time were standing along the airfield waiting to board the aircraft that would take them up when a fast moving F-16 trainer jet collided in air with a C-130 transport plane. The trainee in the jet hit his eject button, which ejected him and the trainer, turning the jet into a flying missile. That missile made a direct hit on the paratroopers were about to board. As it blew up, so did Fletcher’s world.
“Everything was on fire,” he said. “The trees were on fire, the equipment was on fire, the sand turned to glass it was so hot. The whole world seemed to change.”
According to Fletcher, about 180 people were wounded, himself included. He suffered second- and third-degree burns over 45% of his body. Running on adrenalin and oblivious to his burns, he rushed to help others who were hurt.
“There were a lot of people out there and a lot of people in need. We were all just doing what we knew had to be done. I didn’t know how bad I was burned.”
Along with the fire, ammunition left over from an earlier training session was scattered and was blowing up.
Fletcher finally made it to the local hospital before being shipped to Fort Sam Houston, in Texas, and Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he got the best medical care.
“I was sure fortunate to land there,” he said.
The last thing Fletcher remembered was someone saying, “Hey, that thing is going to blow,” and then running to do what he could to help others.
In the end, 25 soldiers lost their lives in what was the single worst loss of life in a day for the 82nd Airborne since the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.
The young paratrooper said he wanted to tell his story to encourage all veterans to tell their stories.
“I wasn’t able to serve as long as I wanted to, but I did what I could do for as long as I could do it,” he said. “I wasn’t injured in wartime, I was injured in a relatively peaceful time in our country. That’s my message to pass out to everyone. War is dangerous, but the job these men and women do for us everyday in serving our country is inherently dangerous unto itself. The training itself is dangerous.”
Fletcher said that half of all veterans have some form of college education when they get out of the military while others have training they can use outside the military. He also said that while veterans make up only 7% of the population, they account for 11% of those who are homeless.
That clear, sunny day in March “was an impactful day, but I continue to see the benefits from it every day,” Fletcher said. “To each and every veteran, the sacrifice and dedication to service is all important, and it continues. They continue to serve in some capacity on and on and on. It’s never ending."
Fletcher says the events of March 23, 1994, haven’t defined him but did help point him in the right direction.
“It changed my life in positive ways,” he said. “I continue to do a lot of things in my life, and I continue to serve this community. If you are a veteran, thank you, and please find a way to tell your story, because it needs to be told.”
The Williamson County Republican Party has, for almost 40 years, hosted a breakfast for area veterans on the Saturday before Veterans Day. Every year, those who attend are inspired by the stories from guest speakers.
“The first year we held (the breakfast) in a room at the old Holiday Inn,” said Jean Barwick, the WCRP’s former executive director.
Dennis Anglin, retired county property assessor, and Paula McCord, a retired businesswoman, were there and continue to be involved in organizing the event every year. Although they try to step back, Anglin and McCord still have their fingers in the pot. This year, a grateful community thanked Anglin and McCord for their service, dedication and devotion in honoring our veterans.
Anglin was presented with a plague and McCord received an eagle statue. Both were engraved with: “Your guiding hands, support and friendship ... played an important role in our annual recognition of those who serve our country.”