A highlight of the annual Plaquemine July 4 Hometown Celebration is the boat parade, led by the event grand marshals, and the ceremony honoring both the grand marshals and all veterans.
Veterans selected as grand marshals of this year’s celebration include: Karen Askins, Robert J. Landry, Nick Louis, Lyman “Lonnie” Marchand, Lonnie Michel, Ronald Porch, Harry Vercher, and Roy Zito, Jr.
Following is a synopsis of the military service of four of the grand marshals. The other four will be published next week.
KAREN D. ASKINS: Askins joined the United States Coast Guard in February of 1978, after deciding that college was not for her. She served for 17 and a half years, and was honorably discharged with the rank of Petty Officer E-6. Her service included serving on the Presidential Honor Guard, and on a small boat search and rescue station.
“I did a lot of flipping rifles on the Honor Guard. We had to be ready at a moment’s notice when the President’s staff called for an Honor Guard, and when Jimmy Carter was president his wife once specifically requested a woman. I was it,” said Askins.
While search and rescue was exciting, it also was dangerous. “Once I was in the water trying to rescue a guy who was in a panic. I thought he was going to drown both of us, so I had to knock him out to rescue him,” she laughed. But she didn’t like being on the big Coast Guard ships because they were at sea for six months at a time.
She served in stations at Virginia, Sacramento, New Orleans, Oakland, Washington, and Hawaii, and spent much of her service as an office administrator, retiring in 1995. Askins received numerous medals, including the Coast Guard Meritorious Unit Commendation with two gold stars, the National Defense Service Medal, Bicentennial Unit Commendation, and others. She moved back to her hometown of Plaquemine after her service.
NICK LOUIS: Louis was a young lad when he served in the U.S. Army in 1952 and 1953. He went straight from basic training to Korea, where the U.S. was in the Korean Conflict. “I was a gunner on a 90 millimeter in combat at first then got transferred to the headquarters in Korea, where I was trained to be a supply sergeant in the dispensary,” he said. “Our barracks were on an air base four minutes behind the front lines, so it was dangerous. It was rough terrain and rough times.”
Louis said it was very difficult to get to the top of mountains, where they were stationed, because of the primitive dirt roads. “Getting transferred to headquarters was great because I got to sleep on a cot, not the ground. At the base, we took care of the Koreans who helped us because they didn’t have any health care. It was tough and I missed home a lot.”
Louis was discharged as a corporal, and came home to operate Nick’s Lounge in Plaquemine for 35 years. Now 85 years old, he still works daily at Z-Best Tires in Plaquemine.
HARRY W. VERCHER: Vercher joined the U.S. Air Force right out of high school, and served four years of active duty and six years in the Air Force Reserves. He received his basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, and then transferred to the Fairchild Base Bomb Wing in Washington.
“I was at base with B-52 bombers, refuelers and ammunition, and it was interesting because most of the base was underground. I had never seen anything like that,” he said. Serving during both the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vercher said it was very stressful.
“We were only 90 miles from Cuba, and during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I was on guard duty 30 nights in a row,” he said. “I had missile clearance and it was something to see all those bombers, but we were really worried Cuba was going to bomb us,” he said.
Vercher was trained in plumbing, and did plumbing work, guard duty and snow removal during his service. He recalls fondly “all the nice guys and buddies. It was like we were all brothers.”
Vercher received numerous honors, including the Vietnam Ribbon, Unit Citations for Strategic Air Command (SAC), and Best SAC for three years. Upon his discharge, he went to work for the U.S. Postal Service in Plaquemine and worked for the postal service for 33 and a half years.
ROY J. ZITO, JR.: Zito was drafted into the U.S. Army in March, 1968, during the Vietnam War. He received basic and advanced training at Fort Polk, and then was transferred into combat in Phu Bai, Vietnam, where he nearly lost his life.
“I had top secret clearance when I went to Vietnam and was assigned to the 8th Radio Research Group, which was the Army’s security and codes base in Vietnam,” he said. “I had access to top secret stuff, but it was next to an airport and there were air attacks regularly at all hours. We were always nervous.”
“We were next to the Da Nang Airport, and one day I was sitting on a bench watching the big planes land. I decided to move, and not long after a bomb hit the area where I had been sitting, destroying the bench I had been sitting on,” he said, still emotional when remembering the devastation. “When the bombs started coming we had to run into bunkers,” he added, “but I am glad I was where I was. The infantry had it worse.”
“The military taught me respect and discipline and made me a better person. The day I stepped off the plane on U.S. ground guys were kissing the ground and my appreciation for this country was overwhelming,” Zito said. He received the Bronze Star and the Vietnam Service Medal, and was discharged with the rank of Specialist E-4.