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Veterans’ Voices Honoring our men and women in uniform By MARY DRENNON Special to the Tribune-Herald "F reedom is so precious — and it’s easy to lose,” said Jerry D. Erdman, 72, of Waco. He knows what he’s talking about. Erdman has been to some 20 countries and has seen first-hand the struggles of people caught under the grip of tyrannical dictators. He felt it was his duty to join the U.S. Navy. In fact, his parents and grandparents expected it. His grandparents told of their own hardships of breaking free and coming to America. “We were encouraged by our parents and grandparents, who told us how blessed we are to live in this country,” he said. U.S. NAVY Erdman’s home life prepared him well for the Navy. He grew up on a farm, bailing hay, driving tractors and doing chores. By age 6, he was driving a tractor; sometimes he and his sister got up as early as 2 or 3 a.m. They raised all their own food and had beef, chicken, pork and the like. Their main crop was alfalfa. “You grow up fast on a farm,” he said. Erdman attended the local Catholic schools in his early elementary years, and then a boarding school (he wasn’t a boarder) in nearby Amarillo. His last two years of high school were spent in his hometown of Canyon, Texas. During these last two years, he enrolled in the Navy and served in the active reserves. By the time he went on active duty, he had already completed his training. Assigned to the USS Cavalier, his position as shipfitter included many duties: welding, metalwork, plumbing and more. He also took his turn on guard duty, driving a landing craft and even manning the ship’s guns, if needed. And he attended firefighting school, which would become helpful later on. Their first WESTPAC cruise sailed from its homeport in San Diego with 1,000 Marines aboard, all their equipment and vehicles, and 500 crew members, including Erdman. Erdman loved being out on the sea. “It’s very peaceful and serene,” he said. They spent 45 days sailing to their destination of Chu Lia, a hot spot in Vietnam. There the Marines unloaded, climbing down the side of the ship to landing crafts waiting below. The ship’s crew was assigned to drive the landing craft boat and assist in the operation. That included Erdman. Sometimes they were fired upon, but that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was picking up the cargo, as it included body bags. This fact was part of the reason the ship had three clergymen - Catholic, Jewish and Protestant. When they held services before a trip out, everyone came, no matter their religion. “It might be your last prayer,” he said. After Chu Lai, they would head to Da Nang, an area that was under major development in the latter Photo by Mary Drennon Waco resident Jerry D. Erdman, 72, served in the U.S. Navy as a shipfitter. part of the ’60s. Everyone was there: Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force and even the Seabees. They were building an airport and roads. The USS Cavalier became a floating hotel in Da Nang. Military members there had a chance to sleep on board, and enjoy a hot meal, shower and a bed, something they hadn’t had for a while. It also housed 10 or 15 Viet Cong prisoners, which some of the sailors envied. The prisoners slept in officer’s quarters and had native cooks that made their meals. They also could come up and move around. “I know many of them didn’t want to leave,” said Erdman. The Cavalier returned to San Diego and made a second WESTPAC trip. Erdman’s final discharge was November 1970; he left as a petty officer. Erdman returned to Amarillo and became a firefighter with the Amarillo Fire Department. He did this for 11 years before he moved to Waco and went to work for a private insurance company; he retired after 20 years in 2000. In 1970, he married Rita Byars and they’ve been together for 49 years. They have two children and four grandchildren. 574 Youngblood Road, Waco, Texas, 76706 • 254.662.5571 • JRoof.com Erdman loved his time in the military, but there was a problem: Agent Orange. The ship made all its own water and failed to filter out Agent Orange. Many of the ships also had asbestos. Today, Erdman is part of an Agent Orange study with the VA. Despite this, it’s likely Erdman wouldn’t have done anything different. “It was basically a duty and an honor to serve our country,” he said. “I’ve been to over 20 countries and many of them were really third-world or even fourthworld countries. They have no freedom. The government owns everything. They could be just as happy and prosperous as us.” Erdman said he loved every minute he was in the military. “I was so proud to serve my country. I wish everybody loved this country like most military people do,” he said. “Veterans’ Voices,” featuring stories about Central Texas veterans, publishes every Sunday. To suggest a story about a Central Texas veteran, please email email@example.com.“Veterans’ Voices” is proudly sponsored by Johnson Roofing. At Johnson Roofing, we believe in America and proudly stand behind the men and women of our armed forces.