Saturday, June 07, 2014

A Marine's metamorphosis: Dan Cain's mililtary career began with a tour of Vietnam as a ground grunt and later evolved to flight school and and a long stint as an aviator on aircraft carriers

Like many combat veterans, Dan Cain would rather talk about the deeds of others than his own. 

"Speaking of myself and my accomplishments are not what I like to do. Never have," said Cain, who has a Purple Heart from his Marine Corps infantry tour of duty in Vietnam and a chestful of other medals from his later, longer stint as a Naval aviator over a span of three wars.

"I'm not a hero. But if you like to think of me that way, OK," Cain said in a recent interview.

Cain is among the veterans who have been invited to address Pensacola's "Heroes Among Us" speakers series. His appearance kicked off the second summer of the monthly events on May 30.

His modesty underscores a common strain that runs through the sizable ranks of decorated armed forces alumni in Pensacola, where you can hardly walk along Palafox Street on a busy night and not be in the company of someone who bled for this nation.

"There are so many. The Heroes Among Us series can only scratch the surface of the sacrifices that have been made by veterans in this area," said Dan Lindemann, a veteran Marine Corps aviator.

Cain spoke self-deprecatingly and with a sense of humor when he addressed an audience of 100 or so gathered at Veterans Memorial Park on a rainy Friday night. He talked about being disciplined by a drill sergeant at Parris Island who warned recruits to duck when they saw him coming because he planned to straighten them out with his fists.

"You better be bobbing and weaving," Cain recalled the DI saying.

"Those were different times, a different Marine Corps," he said.

Military regulations and protocol are much more protective these days of how military recruits are treated. Cain can laugh about the drill sergeants now, but not about the response of the civilian public upon his return from Vietnam in 1967.

"I certainly felt the stigma. When I came back there were definitely the protests going on. I'm truly one of those who got spit upon and yelled at," he recalled.

An enlisted man in the Marine Corps, Cain left the service and went to college, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in marine biology from the University of West Florida in June 1974. The next month, he entered the Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School at Pensacola Naval Air Station, where he received a commission as an ensign in November 1974.

In 1975 Cain won the gold wings of a Naval flight officer, usually the bombardier, navigator or radar intercept specialist who backs up the pilot on two-seater aircraft. That began a long aviation career that included numerous aircraft carrier cruises and more than 1,400 landings on those ships. Many of those sorties were in F-14 Tomcat attack jets.

Cain eventually recorded more than 4,200 hours of flying in F-14s, which won him the nickname "Mr. Tomcat."

Besides the Purple Heart, his decorations include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Combat Action Ribbon with a gold star and a Good Conduct Medal with the Marine Corps.

"That last one I might not have really deserved," joked Cain, whose stories of life as a grunt include "borrowing" a Jeep for a night of recreation.

These days, since retiring with in 2004 after 36 years in uniform, Cain resides with his wife of 36 years, Kathy, on their farm in Molino.

He occasionally accepts speaking engagements, but laments that he doesn't seem to get as many invitations from public schools as he used to. Like many observers of today's military, he feels that much of the public has lost connection with the armed forces, which he sees as a flaw in society.

Andrew Bacevich describes the broken link in his popular book, "Breach of Trust," in which the Boston University history professor writes that America's civilian population is missing an important part of its cultural heritage by relating to the military as little more than flyovers at sports events, parades and casualty statistics.

"There's a lot of, 'Thank you for your service,' but much of it is lip service," said Cain. He yearns for a return to some form of the draft, perhaps not entirely for military duty but also for a stint in community service.

"Most of today's youth don't have the close relationship with their country that past generations had. It's part of their citizenship that's just gone," Cain said.

Children who used to attend his talks at schools "would ask also sorts of questions. I would take my flight gear and they would ask about becoming pilots. I'm an old guy now and they don't want to hear old guys talk," said the 68-year-old.

But to the Pensacola area faithful who attended Heroes Among Us, Cain is a civic treasure. "He's the real deal. He's done it all," said Ed Rouse, a Marine veteran who leads in the volunteer effort for the speaker series.

But Cain kept veering away from discussing himself at his Veterans Memorial Park appearance. He dedicated much of his talk to long-time friend, Robert Flynn, a retired Navy commander whose A-6 Intruder was shot down in Vietnam, after which he spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war.

Flynn, who retired in Pensacola, died in May at the age of 76.

Cain choked up as he spoke of his admiration for Flynn: "Now, there was a hero."

The real deals are forever giving credit to someone else.

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