Nolin RECC participates in the Touchstone Energy Honor Flight by sponsoring local veterans to attend each year. With both the 2020 and 2021 flights cancelled due to the pandemic, we are thrilled this year to be able to once again sponsor veterans on the Honor Flight which is scheduled for Saturday, September 17th. The flight will leave from and return to the Blue Grass airport in Lexington.
One veteran that Nolin RECC is sponsoring for this year’s Honor Flight is Mr. Gary Kohtala.
Gary Kohtala grew up in northern Michigan. His father served in the Army, so Gary’s family moved around during his childhood. They eventually settled in Washington State where Gary finished high school and joined the Army. Gary’s sisters also served time in the military.
Gary was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army through the delayed entry program. On his 18th birthday in February of 1972, he began active duty. At that time, he went to his high school principal to request that he be allowed to graduate with his class based on his credits and good grades to that point. His principal waived the remainder of his high school classwork and Gary left for combat. He recalls receiving his high school diploma in his PO Box in Vietnam.
Gary learned to be a ham radio operator at a young age. Ham radio is a federally licensed personal radio service that is a vital communications tool, especially in emergencies when other forms of communication may not be possible. He was able to put his interests to work in the Army as a morse code interceptor in combat with an aviation company. His mission included doing intercept, communication jamming and direction finding of enemy targets which provided essential support for operations.
One memory that stands out to Gary happened on the day of the cease fire in Vietnam. Ten minutes before the official cease fire was set to begin, his company was surrounded by sirens and booms. Expecting an attack, personnel were sent to the perimeter, but no attack came. He said the enemy had decided to give them a “send off.”
Gary says about his military service and the years following:
Over the course of my 22 years of continuous active service, I served in Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, Germany, and several stateside assignments including Fort Meade MD. I provided support to Gulf War 1 from Fort Meade and was awarded a Joint Service Achievement Medal for my efforts. Of them all, I served four tours for nearly ten years in Korea. I preferred overseas duty as that was where we truly worked our jobs. Stateside duty was often painting rocks, washing trucks, and field exercises. The most satisfaction for someone in my particular specialty was overseas. I retired as a Sergeant First Class, SFC / E7, on 1 MAR 1994.
Having retired from the Army in 1994, I took on several government contractor jobs. First was at the Corps Battle Simulator at Fort Lewis, WA. I was the system administrator. I operated, installed, and maintained several hundred workstations and two main frame computers in support of U.S. Army training. I was with the CBS for approximately five years, then was offered a higher-level ground simulator job. I spent three months at Fort Knox in the year 2000, training to maintain, operate, and install mobile and fixed site conduct of fire trainers and subsequently, the EST-2000 small arms training system. I supported Convoy, Bradley Fighting Vehicle, and M1 Abrahms tank simulators until May 2007 at which time I took a job at Boeing in Auburn, WA. I had initially planned to cross over to flight simulator maintenance and training, however there was a hiring freeze in that specialty. Boeing was actually letting people go as they were top heavy. So, I settled into aluminum and hard metal fabrication and final assembly for the duration of my stint at Boeing. I retired in May 2016 and moved to Radcliff, KY in June, where I have been ever since.
Though officially “retired,” Gary still serves his country using his passion for ham radio working with agencies such as FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security providing backup communications on government frequencies.
Gary has four daughters who he says make him very proud. They live on the west coast and range in age from 17 to 30. Gary says his daughters have “exponentially exceeded my wildest expectations. They make me feel like a very successful father.”
Gary says he looks forward to participating in the Honor Flight. Like other veterans who served during Vietnam, Gary’s experience of coming home was not one of welcome or gratitude. The Honor Flight provides a chance for veterans like Gary who honorably served their country to be recognized for their sacrifice and service.
Reflecting on his service, Gary says that life is about service and giving something back. Because somebody always helped me and I’m thankful for what I have. And there’s always somebody less fortunate than me. To try to safe guard the freedoms that we enjoy here in this country, I am just so pleased to have served.
Photo 1 & 2 (top row): Basic Training – 1972, Fort Ord, CA
Photo 3 & 4 (smaller photos on lefthand side middle): 1973 while on leave in Puyallup, WA en route to Vint Hill Farms Station, VA from Vietnam/Thailand. Pictured with his mother.
Photo 5 (right, middle): 1987, Ft Lewis, WA
Photo 6 (bottom left): Late 1973, early 1974, Vint Hill Farms Station, VA.
Photo 7 & 8 (bottom right): The patch with lightning in the eagle’s claw is the Army Security Agency, or ASA, which was later reorganized and renamed to Intelligence & Security Command, or INSCOM. The latter is the patch with the key, lightning bolt, and torch.
The orange & yellow patch with the sword was Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, or MACV. Mr. Kohtala had to wear the MACV patch and operate incognito in Vietnam. There was a bounty on ASA soldiers. Public revelation of ASA’s role in Vietnam was not divulged until around 1974.
The blue/orange medal is the Air Medal, Mr. Kohtala’s highest military achievement.
The Air Medal is awarded to U.S. and civilian personnel for single acts of heroism or
meritorious achievements while participating in aerial flight and foreign military personnel in actual combat in support of operations. He was awarded the basic Air Medal, plus a 4 device, representing 250 hours of in-flight combat.
See our full interview with Mr. Kohtala for our podcast Wire-to-Wire with Nolin RECC HERE