Veterans Day has passed, and on that day we remembered.
Tributes were said, flags were flown and memorials across our great land were held to honor our men and women who have served our country.
It’s only one day. But what our military and their families have done for us — the sacrifices they have made — linger in our hearts, often for a lifetime.
Such is the story of retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Gene Mares who, after 40 years, still remembers his fallen best friend, Jerry Zimmer.
They’d formed their friendship in upstate New York when Gene moved into the rural community as a teen. Through the twists and turns of growing up together, their bond grew tighter. Gene was Jerry’s best man when he married Elaine and later the godparent to their first child, Craig.
The Vietnam War raged.
Both Gene and Jerry felt the need to serve, to be patriotic and step up to help their country. The two friends joined Marine Corps and flew 23 missions together in an F-4 Phantom-II jet. Jerry was the pilot. Gene was his sidekick as the radar intercept officer. Being together brought home just a little bit closer.
As with all deployment, Gene went stateside. Jerry stayed behind to continue the bombing missions. But on Aug. 29, 1969, Jerry and his new communications officer flew their last flight. The jet was shot down over the jungles of Vietnam. The plane exploded on impact. Both men were missing in action.
Gene, who now lives in Richland, recalls he couldn’t believe the news, that he carried the image of Jerry walking into his life again. But as days passed, truth became reality. Jerry wasn’t coming home.
The war finally ended. But life in Gene’s world went on — and so did the pain of losing his best friend.
Then this past spring, Gene and Jerry’s widow, Elaine Zimmer Davis, went back into the jungles to find his best friend. The journey was grueling physically and emotionally, but Gene succeeded in finding the crash site that DNA results concurred. (You can see and hear more details by clicking on this link to KTNW public television's InSteppe program.)
“I was going over with mixed feelings,” says Gene, “and came back reassured I had done for my ‘buddy’ what he would have done for me and my family.”
Friends don’t forget. And neither do we.
Veterans Day has passed for this year, but the past is not forgotten.