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American flag unites war veterans
By Jackie R. Broach
Robert Graham, 84, cried as an American flag, carefully folded and wrapped, was placed in his hands on July 1.
The World War II veteran's tears were an indication of how deeply touched he was by the gift, said his daughter, Sharon Abee.
"He's not a real emotional guy," she explained. Both she and her father live at Wachesaw East.
The flag was carried in combat aboard the USAF RC-700A during the aircraft's 200th consecutive mission last year in Afghanistan, and was presented by Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Harmon, 40, of Ohio, in honor of Graham's service.
Harmon finished a 178-day deployment to Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan on Dec. 3 and was vacationing with his family in the Pawleys Island area last week. He met with Graham at Litchfield Real Estate, where his mother, Maxine Carpenter, works with Abee.
Harmon and Graham had never met before, but spent about an hour exchanging war stories and talking like old friends.
"I've always been thankful I was in the service," Graham told Harmon. "It's one of the greatest learning experiences."
It teaches discipline and respect, he added.
Harmon agreed. "You definitely learn your limits, and it gives you confidence," he said.
He also spoke of the camaraderie among people working in rough conditions over an extended period.
"It's amazing. You can't really get that experience anywhere else," Harmon said.
Graham enlisted in the Army Air Corps, a forerunner of the Air Force, in August 1943, about two months shy of his 18th birthday. He lied about his age because he so badly wanted to serve his country in honor of his older brother, Charlie, who was killed in combat that year. A B-17 pilot, Charlie was only about 21 when his plane was shot down.
His brother, Joe, also served in the Air Corps, and there was no question that's what Graham wanted to do.
"I wanted to be a flyboy, but at that point they needed pilots like they needed holes in the head," Graham said.
He ended up in the 413th Fighter Squadron, working primarily on the ground. He helped with reconnaissance photos in the Philippines by taking care of cameras attached to guns and developing the film.
Graham served for just under three years and received two Bronze Stars.
He was honorably discharged in May 1946, as a staff sergeant and went into the textile business in Alabama. He still wasn't old enough to vote, he said.
Graham showed Harmon postcards from his service days and an old photo of himself and some of his squad members. Graham was the youngest of the group.
"It was a very interesting time in my life," he said.
Carpenter said she and her husband, Butch, knew it would mean a lot to Harmon to give a flag to someone like Graham. Harmon has a great respect and appreciation for veterans of that generation.
"Jimmy thinks the old veterans did everything," Carpenter said.
That's largely thanks to stories her father, Willard Church, used to tell Harmon about his time as a pilot in the Philippines during World War II.
Harmon couldn't wait to follow in his footsteps.
"When I was a kid, he would take me to the recruiters' office and walk me through there," Harmon said. "From the time I was 4 or 5, I knew I wanted to be a pilot.”
He's been in the Air Force for 18 years and has been deployed 14 times. He was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., from 2003 to 2007 and piloted the planes used to transport former presidents, first ladies and Cabinet members.
The assignment gave him an opportunity to hear some great stories from some fascinating people.
"Shortly after President Ford passed away, I got notified to fly down to Panama City to pick up Jimmy Carter and his family and bring them back for the funeral," Harmon said. "Myself and another pilot were sitting in the cockpit, waiting, and Jimmy Carter is there with his hands on the seats talking about Panama and how it was special to him, and what was going through his mind when he signed the Panama Canal Treaty."
It's something Harmon said he'll never forget.
While piloting a plane carrying former President George H.W. Bush, Harmon got to see him in a way few do, dozing in a chair with his glasses hanging off his nose and a magazine in his lap.
Harmon is now a program manager and hasn't flown a plane since November. It's the longest he's ever gone without flying.
"It's terrible, sitting behind a desk," he said. He's eager to requalify and get back in the cockpit.
The two men discussed what Graham should do with the flag. Graham said he wants it to fly in a public place, such as a post office or VFW hall.
"I've got to find a home for it," he said. "It doesn't belong sitting up on a shelf in my house."