Gene Lathrop served in the U.S. Marine Corps. Submitted photo
Thursday, November 15, 2012
(Last modified: 2012-11-15 08:44:50)

Editor’s note: The following story was part of Monday’s Veterans Day salute and program at Blowing Rock School auditorium.


Gene Lathrop died in June of this year. I did not find out about his death until last month.

Gene was a member of our Third Platoon during Basic Officer Training at Quantico, Va., in 1965. Our platoon of 40 brand-new second lieutenants assembled in June of 1965 for six months of Marine Corps Infantry training.

Gene was the “bottom man” during all of our training. He did not want to be there. He did not want to fire his rifle, conduct 25- and 50-mile marches with full equipment, learn bayonet fighting, or learn platoon and company tactics or night fighting techniques.

Gene kept telling all of us over and over that he was supposed to go to Flight School, not the Basic School. He said that he was a pilot, not an infantryman. He graduated in December at the bottom of the class.

The next time we saw Gene was in Quantico in 2000 when the Third Platoon gathered for a reunion.
Gene showed up like an aging hippie with worn blue jeans, a mustache and beard and purple-tinted sunglasses.

He did not talk a lot, other than letting us know that he had become a pilot, got out of the Marine Corps in 1970, and was working with the Oregon Forestry Service.

Our platoon has kept in touch since 1999 and continue to correspond with each other, so when Gene’s wife kept receiving emails to him, she let us know that Gene had passed away in June and sent us a copy of Gene’s obituary and also a letter telling us more about Gene.

As Paul Harvey used to say, “Here is the rest of the story.”

Gene went from Quantico to the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla., for naval flight training. While there, he graduated second in his class of naval aviators. While he was there, he was receiving jet training.

Just after liftoff, the aircraft engine exploded and the aircraft became unflyable at less than 1,000 feet of altitude.

Gene and the instructor both immediately ejected.

The instructor went right into the fireball of the crashing jet and was killed instantly. Gene went through the fireball, landing on the other side of the wrecked aircraft.

He sustained burns over 40 percent of his body and spent the next six months in the hospital recovering from his injuries.

Because of the desperate need for pilots in Vietnam, Gene was allowed to complete his flight training before he was fully recovered from his burns.

Following completion of his training, he was sent to Vietnam flying A-4 Skyhawks from Chu Lai for a year.

The A-4 is the smallest aircraft that is qualified to operate from an aircraft carrier and the cockpit is very narrow.

Gene’s shoulders rubbed against the cockpit edges on every mission. He never shared stories about that year of combat operations, but in 1970, he returned to the United States and resigned his commission as captain and went to work for the Oregon Forestry Service.

Gene’s wife told us that he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He suffered from severe claustrophobia and hated to be in enclosed places.

He spent most of his life out in the woods or on horseback. He never tried to get help for his PTSD.

His wife told us that he hated to be around people, and he strongly resisted attending our first reunion in 2000. She also told us that he had enjoyed himself more than he expected at the reunion, but he still continued to avoid social situations as much as possible.

We were shocked to learn about Gene’s silent struggles with his military experiences, and we now wish we could have done something to help him while he was alive.

So, the lesson here is that we need to be aware of the “invisible wounds” our veterans may have suffered and be ready to help if we can.

Thank you to all veterans who have served, and thank you for your service.

Words alone cannot adequately express our appreciation for what you went through on our behalf.

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