"What I came home to in 1969 was so disheartening," E.J. Breen
"My father came to hear me," Breen
never talked about it again, keeping those memories to himself, until last Monday morning.
, 64, sitting at his
desk in Lynn English High School
, waiting for his
sophomore history class to arrive, was thumbing through the Herald when he
came upon that piece.
"It absolutely floored me," he
That's because he
was one of those VO-67 heroes.
"As the kids began filing in, one asked, ‘What's the matter, Mr. Breen?Is everything OK?' "He
waited for the class to settle down.
"As a teacher," he
said, "I wanted them to have a feeling for our history, to feel a connection to it.So I said, ‘I have something I'd like to read to you.' "He
had almost reached the end of that column when he
began to choke up and had to excuse himself.
"As soon as I stepped back into the classroom," he
said, "they were all over me: ‘Are you going to the ceremony?You've got to go!' I wasn't planning on going, but they kept insisting I had to be there."
An adage holds that when the student is ready the teacher will appear, which is pretty much what happened last Monday in the sophomore history class at Lynn English
flew to Washington to participate in Wednesday's ceremony at the U.S. Navy Memorial.
"It was the first time I'd seen those guys in 40 years," he
...Lynn English teacher E.J. Breen with his 10th grade U.S. History class.
gave no clues of his
involvement with the VO-67 Observation
Team, known as the "ghost squadron" because technically it never existed, even after a 30-year military enforced gag order expired in 1998.
It was not until Breen
himself learned that the squadron would be receiving the prestigious Presidential Unit Citation earlier this month for "extraordinary heroism" in Khe Sanh that he
decided to share a piece of his
experience with his
class at LEHS
To understand the significance of the honor, one must first understand the significance of VO-67's
top-secret mission, carried out between February 1967 and July 1968, and the powerful effect it had on Breen's life.
As 20,000 North Vietnamese surrounded 1,800 U.S. Marines
on a hill near Khe Sanh, Breen
fellow squadron members buzzed over the heavily settled jungle, flying as low as 500 feet, close enough to risk being hit by ground fire.
Their goal was to drop sensor fields or eavesdropping devices to the Marines below to alert the soldiers to the movements of enemy troops.
The VO-67 Squadron lost 20 men during this mission, but managed to cut the amount of American casualties in half and aid in an eventual rescue mission for those troops.
"Because it was a secret mission, to us it was just a Marine outpost.We
had no idea we were at Khe Sanh," said Breen
were originally based in Thailand and we were going on flying missions over Laos."
After the confidential mission was complete, Breen
and the remaining members of his
squadron returned to Camranh Bay where, among other things, he
helped build an orphanage for children affected by the war.His
efforts both at the orphanage and in the air have had an equally strong effect on Breen
, who says he
still thinks about those children to this day and hopes that they were able to escape their war-torn homeland and come to the United States to start over.
"Every time I see an Asian kid come in to a classroom I think 'It has to be the blood of some of those kids,'" he
said."I hope that they got out of there."Breen
returned home after six years of active duty to work as a pilot for Eastern Airlines
for the next two decades.After a brief stint owning a nightclub, he
decided to follow his
dream and become a teacher/hockey coach.
Now 64, Breen
had kept quiet about his
experiences in Vietnam for 40 years, until the news of the Presidential Citation surfaced earlier this month.Breen
learned of the honor by chance, thumbing the pages of a Boston newspaper, which had printed a story honoring local members of VO-67, as he
waited for a class of sophomores to arrive for the day's lesson.
Shocked and filled with emotion, Breen
decided to share the story with his
class, explaining the mission and the significance of the honor.
"I wanted to give the kids a feeling of history, so I decided I was going to read the article to them.I got near the end and I started to get kind of choked up, and I had to walk out of the class," he
said."When I came back in they started asking me if I was going to go (to Washington to receive the citation).They told me I had to go, they even offered to take up a collection for me if I couldn't afford to make the trip."
On the advice of his
made that trip and met with his
brothers in arms May 14 at the U.S. Navy Memorial.While he
has seen some of his
squadron mates in the past, Breen
said this trip was different - more meaningful even - as the sole purpose was to receive this prestigious citation.
"I went down to Washington and I met with 45 of my buddies that I hadn't seen in probably 5 years," he