Myanmar’s military toppled the civilian government. Now the country’s diverse population is banding together in protest
Seventh in a series on war veterans
Flying 70 feet above the tree line, helicopter crew chief and machine gunner Jerry Kyser saw North Vietnamese soldiers on the ground fire rocket-propelled grenades toward him.
“RPG!” he yelled into his mic. The pilot of the UH-1 Huey quickly veered upward, and the explosive missiles passed directly underneath the skids. Kyser’s heart thudded.
Now 75 years old, Kyser recalls those days: “We had an attitude we were invincible. We were the good guys.” But during two tours of duty from 1968 to 1970 in the Vietnam War, as part of the 1st Aviation Brigade he’d seen helicopters go down, survived one crash, retrieved comrades killed in action, machine-gunned enemies, and had shrapnel pierce his foot. He made it home with his life—and psychological wounds. Healing those wounds took a supernatural heart change and a reorientation of his life mission.
The day he finished his second tour of duty, Kyser saw the helicopter he’d flown in blown up by an enemy rocket while parked nearby. Within the week, he found himself back in college in North Dakota, trying to reconcile the peaceful campus with the life-and-death combat situations he’d left behind. He struggled to fit in and suffered flashbacks.
For years after finishing college, Kyser bounced from job to job and tried to figure out why life was so hard. His emotions were volatile. Doctors checked him for Agent Orange poisoning. They evaluated him for schizophrenia. Nothing could pinpoint the heart of his issues.
Internally, he wrestled with submitting to authority, recollecting a bad experience with a colonel he’d had in Vietnam. Kyser also resented World War II and Korean War veterans. Many had treated him and other Vietnam combatants derisively. “I even got into a fist fight with one because he called us a bunch of killers,” he says.
In 1976 he married Jana, a widow dealing with trauma of her own. She’d become an alcoholic after her first husband, a Vietnam vet who had returned from the war angry and abusive, drowned during a family vacation.
But several years into her marriage to Jerry, Jana became a Christian and quit drinking. Her transformation sparked a spiritual awakening in Jerry, who also surrendered to Jesus. Through deep conversations and Bible study, they began helping each other deal with past issues. Jana encouraged Jerry to seek more help, and eventually doctors diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Giving his life to Christ and learning about PTSD and its effect on hundreds of thousands of veterans helped Kyser look beyond himself. After 9/11, he became an advocate for Vietnam vets, eventually becoming the president of Minnesota Vietnam Veterans of America.
While serving fellow veterans, he realized something else: Focusing on others softened his feelings of resentment toward earlier war vets.
As he and Jana prayed daily for God to heal, guide, and bless them, they met people who introduced them to the Honor Flight Network, a national nonprofit that takes veterans free to Washington, D.C., to visit their respective war memorials. In 2008, the Kysers started Honor Flight Twin Cities and began taking local veterans, mostly from WWII and the Korean War, on trips to the U.S. capital.
On the Honor Flights, the veterans realize their sacrifices haven’t been forgotten. They talk about experiences during the war—sometimes for the first time—and often rekindle relationships or strike up new ones with fellow travelers. They get “mail call,” where Jerry delivers prearranged letters from the veterans’ loved ones thanking them for their service. In Washington, they receive a hero’s welcome and visit their monument—the World War II Memorial or the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
Jerry comes from eight generations of military men, with relatives who served in the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. His father served under Gen. George Patton in WWII. The Kysers’ daughter was an Air Force cadet and married a Marine Corps pilot.
Jerry speaks about the veterans in his Honor Flight program with great respect and has befriended many. He meets regularly with one World War II vet, 99-year-old Bernie Holritz (see “Adjusting to bigger plans,” Oct. 24, 2020), whom Kyser considers a spiritual mentor. Each week they study the Bible together and pray.
After finding Christ, Jerry says, nothing has given him greater purpose and joy than honoring men and women from other wars who share his love of country. He revels in helping them tell their stories. He speaks with pride about his wife, who’s been integral in their work: “She’s the two-star general. I’m just a sergeant.”
Jana notes that God has taken away Jerry’s bitterness. “Doing these Honor Flights was a healing mission for Jerry. He was giving honor to these men and women who hadn’t treated the Vietnam vets very well.”
Since 2008, the Kysers have taken 22 trips with over 2,000 mostly WWII and Korean War vets. In addition to leading Honor Flights, Jerry arranges military jet flyovers for ceremonies honoring veterans. He continues to raise money for homeless vet organizations, military appreciation days, commemorative military airports, and other veteran causes.
The Honor Flights are on pause for now, but once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, the Kysers plan to resume them. As the number of World War II veterans decreases, they will focus more on Korean War and Vietnam servicemen and women. With about 350,000 veterans still living in Minnesota, most of whom haven’t yet been on an Honor Flight, the Kysers have many more missions ahead.