The Good Stuff: Life-saving tribute

Veterans' signatures now a permanent part of a unique piece of Joaquin, Texas, firefighting equipment

EAST TEXAS (KSLA) - Kenneth Dickerson walks his 76-acre spread, just west of Joaquin, Texas, keeping watch over his dozen or so head of cattle.

"It's nice. I'll come out here sometimes," says Dickerson, bragging on the remote quietness of the rural area.

The quiet is a far cry from what he was dealing with roughly 50 years ago while on the ground in Vietnam.

“It was pretty noisy in ’68 and ’69,” he remembers. Dickerson served as a door gunner on transport choppers.

"A 19-year-old kid shouldn't see some of the things a 19-year-old kid saw back then, because you can't unsee it."

Dickerson and well over two million other military men and women returned from Vietnam without any sort of heroes welcome, with many activists at the time, protesting the United State's involvement in this ongoing conflict.

“It kind of makes you wonder, why didn’t that happen 50 years ago?”, asks Dickerson, still haunted by the fact so many Americans turned their backs on veterans in the late 60s and early 70s.

But he need not travel far, only to his local fire station, to get a taste of renewed patriotism and support.

“I feel like the way the Vietnam veterans were treated when they came home, in my opinion, was a national disgrace,” says Joaquin Volunteer Fire Department Training Officer Stephen Ewing.

And that is a major catalyst behind the fire department's decision to do something special for area veterans.

Shelby County, Texas veterans stand next to the Joaquin Volunteer Fire Department's newest vehicle
Shelby County, Texas veterans stand next to the Joaquin Volunteer Fire Department's newest vehicle (Source: Doug Warner - KSLA)

Joaquin fire officials recently received a truck from the Department of Defense, via the Texas Forest Service, as part of a program designed to help volunteer fire departments around the state.

The 25-year-old truck was once used in the military as a transport vehicle for military men and women. Now, the fire department has since equipped it to be one a brush pumper for rural woods fires and water rescues.

However, the team also wanted to do something more for their area veterans.

“You feel like, in a way, you’re driving something that’s more than just a fire truck,” Ewing said, especially after doing more than just painting the Afghanistan camo, firehouse red.

Ewing and other firefighters began inviting area veterans to sign their names on the truck.

Vietnam veteran Newton Johnson recently signed the Joaquin fire truck
Vietnam veteran Newton Johnson recently signed the Joaquin fire truck (Source: KSLA)

“I’m very proud to have my name on that truck,” said Marine veteran Newton Johnson.

“It’ll let some of the younger generation know about the Vietnam War, realize 58,000 lost their lives over there,” Johnson added.

It's a sentiment shared by fellow Vietnam vet and Joaquin resident Webb Bates.

"It gets you in the heart," Bates emotionally admits, speaking off the hundreds of veterans' names signed on the fire truck.

"It really hits home," he adds.

One of the most storied veterans in Shelby County, is World War II veteran A.J. Procell.

"I started off in Pear Harbor, but the war had already started," Procell recalls.

A.J. Procell shortly after joining the Navy and being assigned to the U.S.S. North Carolina
A.J. Procell shortly after joining the Navy and being assigned to the U.S.S. North Carolina (Source: Procell family)

Procell was assigned to the U.S.S. North Carolina where he worked as a 40 millimeter direct operator, spotting enemy planes for ship gunners.

Procell was later able to witness one of the greatest World War II moments.

"I was there," says Procell, speaking of the day Japan surrender to the U.S. and their allies.

"I tell you, we couldn't believe it. None of us could believe it."

As for signing the fire truck along with the other veterans, "You can get some of these people that haven't heard a lot about a war, and getting to talk to them, and they'll ask a lot of questions."

Questions Procell and these other veterans would love to answer.

“Asking the veterans to sign it, just puts that stamp on it,” Ewing said.

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