Cordova veteran teaching patriotism to future leaders

Daily Mountain Eagle The American flag is a sacred thing for Larry Sides. In his wallet, he carries a piece of a retired flag given to him as a tribute to his own military service. It is also a reminder of three high school friends who died defending it and thousands of others who were denied a hero’s homecoming. “I never forget my buddies. I never forget the faces of the men that you’d meet in the airport. The only time I’ve ever been disappointed in the United States was when they didn’t like us and they didn’t support us,” Sides said. Sides was 19 when he joined the U.S. Air Force in 1967, two years before the first Vietnam draft lottery was held. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, who had served in the Eighth Army Air Corps, and other family members who had worn their country’s uniform. Sides served for four years during the Vietnam War. By war’s end, there had been more than 58,000 American casualties, including fellow Cordova High School graduates Larry Black, Sammy Smith and Jerry Higgins. Sides had other friends who came home but were never the same. “They killed him in Vietnam. It just took a long time before we buried him,” Sides said of one friend who turned to alcoholism to cope with mental anguish. Fifty years later, Sides also remains bitter about the treatment his fellow soldiers received at the hands of those who resented their service. He once met a young black soldier in an airport who had been pulled out of a firefight because his mother was dying. As he entered the airport, he looked around in search of someone who might welcome him home. “I will always remember his words. He said, ‘A stringy-haired girl came up. I thought she was going to hug my neck. Man, she spit on me and called me a baby-killer,’” Sides said. The soldier didn’t retaliate; he just cried. For Sides, the story illustrates not only the political divisions of a nation but also the burdens that young men who serve must shoulder.

“Our government asks so very much of young men. Sometimes, I think maybe we should leave the young men alone and get some of us old guys to take care of business,” Sides said. Sides served in the Air Force’s 821st Civil Engineering Squadron from 1967 to 1971. He later joined the National Guard unit in Cordova and served alongside his uncle Ebb Dawkins, a Korean War veteran and “soldier’s soldier” who creased his uniform so crisply that it looked like it could cut a man. “It’s a decision I’ll never regret. I was in and out several times. I always said that even though I spent more years in the Army than the Air Force, the Army never got the Air Force out of me,” he said. Sides ended his military service as a maintenance instructor in the U.S. Army Reserves. The night before his final class in February 2007, Sides realized how hard it would be to hang up his uniform. “Since I was 19 until the present, there has been a military uniform hanging in my closet. I was always proud of my uniform. When I first went in to teach a class, I made sure that I was squared away and I would tell them, ‘This is the standard. This is what I expect from you next month,’” he said. Now Sides imparts knowledge to the members of Boy Scout Troop 114 in Cordova. Sides has been involved with the Boy Scouts in some capacity for 59 years. He currently serves as chairman of the Scout committee but also attends every meeting and summer camp. One of his most important contributions is teaching the Scouts flag etiquette. He underscores the importance of properly handling a flag by telling stories about three classmates who gave their lives on a foreign battlefield. At an emotional flag retirement ceremony hosted recently by the troop, Sides watched with pride as young Scouts marched forward resembling little soldiers as they placed dozens of donated flags upon the fire. Under different circumstances, they might have been the grandchildren of Larry Black, Sammy Smith and Jerry Higgins. Because of their sacrifice and his own love of country, Sides stands ready to defend the flag today if asked. When the national anthem is played, even while he is watching a sporting event on television, he stands ramrod straight and salutes the symbol of the nation. “I remember coming home on leave and being so proud to stand in uniform at football games and salute my flag. I’m just as proud today. When they play the national anthem at a University of Alabama football games, I try to stand just as straight and be just as crisp with my salute as I did as a 19-year-old soldier,” Sides said.