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Local veterans recall tales of valor, service

Nov. 11, 2010

Daniel Cernero | Photo Editor
Billy Elkins, the first vice commander of the American Legion Post 121, served as an Army staff sergeant in Operation Desert Storm.

By Carmen Galvan
Staff Writer

He said he did not have the privilege of putting boots on the ground in Vietnam, but his brothers did. He served as a staff sergeant for the United States Army in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War and was shot at night and day in Kuwait, never knowing if he would be the next man down. And when he and his comrades touched down in New York after a six-month tour of duty, American citizens greeted them with tears and grateful applause.

Billy Elkins, United States Army veteran and current first vice commander of the American Legion Post 121, said joining the military is a family tradition.

"I joined the military because there is military in my blood," Elkins said. "My dad was in the military and my grandfathers all the way back to the Civil War. I had two brothers in the Marine Corps in Vietnam and it was just in the blood, and I felt that was part of what I was supposed to be."

Elkins is one of many veterans being honored around Waco and the U.S. today as the nation celebrates veterans of all military branches with parades, applause and appreciation.

Elkins, who was born in Spokane, Wash., and raised in Waco, enlisted in 1969 and joined the ranks of the United States Army Reserve after the Vietnam War. In 1991, Elkins was called to active duty to serve in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. His most prominent memories of his tour in Kuwait centered on uncertainty and loss.

"It's never knowing. We were shot at day and night with various stud missiles and never knowing when one was near and would hit you," Elkins said. "At 12 noon Kuwait looked like 12 midnight from the oil wells they went through and set on fire, and it was pitch black. [I remember] that and losing friends."

Elkins emphasized the camaraderie of his Army experience and said the loss of his friends felt like the loss of his family.

"We are all like brothers. We all get to know each other, our backgrounds, where we come from, and we meet each other's families," Elkins said. "And from years of being together we just grow together and become close knit, and if something happens to one it's like family. I have friends that I lost during that period."

Elkins served a six-month tour in Kuwait, departing in January and arriving in the United States in July, and he brought home symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as well as lung problems from the oil fires. However, he was greeted with tears of joy when he returned home.

"We landed in New York City and couldn't want to be greeted any better," Elkins said. "We had people stop and cry, and when we landed in Fort Hood where we processed out, we were met by local people and our families, and they were lining the streets and applauding and clapping. It was totally awesome."

Dr. Mike O'Bric, a veteran who served in the Marine Corps as a Marine Corps Mustang, is coordinating a Veterans Day Parade, which will be held at 11 a.m. today. The parade is sponsored by the McLennan County Veterans Association. O'Bric said the parade, which begins at 13th Street and Austin Avenue, is held each year to honor veterans and will particularly honor the Navy this year, such as Navy Chief Cliff Teer, named parade marshal, and Navy Seabee Earl Tabor, named honor marshal, both World War II veterans.

Teer was aboard a destroyer when the attack of Pearl Harbor occurred, and his ship was in the first battles against the imperial Japanese navy.

As a Seabee, Tabor went in early with assaults to help set up the landing of additional troops, O'Bric said. He was aboard ship in support of five Marine Corps invasions of Guadalcanal to Okinawa.

Both Teer and Tabor are in their early 90s.

Along with these veterans, 139 units and 3,500 people will participate in this year's parade. Floats from organizations such as Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames of the 17th Century and Mayflower Descendants, as well as marching bands, will also walk in the parade.

The American Legion Post 121 will also feature a float in the parade, said commander Robert Vaughan of the American Legion Post 121.

"We will have members riding on the float; most of our veterans will be on it," Vaughan said.

O'Bric said he hopes the public will attend the parade to support local veterans.

"I don't know how to say it, but we appreciate the heart of Texas and their support of veterans and our parade. It's tremendous," O'Bric said. "When you think of 3,500 adults and youth in this parade, that is an amazing turnout and support."