When serving during the Vietnam War more than 39 years ago, retired Army Col. Quin Herlik's airplane was shot down by enemy fire and he was taken as a prisoner of war.
Today, he shares his tale of tribulation and survival at schools and various organizations throughout the area.
On Tuesday, Herlik, along with millions of other current and former military personnel, will be honored for their service during Veterans Day. As of 2007, there were 23.6 million living veterans in the U.S., according to U.S. Census data.
"The best thing you could do is to just say, 'Thank you for your service,' because that means a real lot," Herlik said.
Herlik, a Martinez resident, first went to Vietnam as a captain in 1964 and finished his tour in 1965 after flying 700 hours. In 1968, he returned to duty in Vietnam for nine months until he and three other men were taken captive by the North Vietnamese in February 1969. He said he often tells people that his two best assignments came on tour in Vietnam.
"I knew in my mind what we were doing was right," he said. "We were trying to fight the Communists.
"We wanted the South Vietnamese people to live free lives like we had back in the States, and we felt like we were doing the right thing by trying to stop the spread of Communism at that time."
During the war, Herlik, along with two enlisted men and a co-pilot, were on a classified mission along the Cambodian border when their single-engine Otter plane was shot down. They were able to destroy all classified information, but Herlik and the enlisted men were taken captive. He believed his co-pilot was dead, but later found out he was alive when they were reunited.
"My plane got hit by anti-aircraft (fire) and I ended up landing it half a mile inside of Cambodia in a dried-out rice paddy in the middle of a battalion of Vietcong," said Herlik, an Army major at the time.
The three men were bound together and forced to walk nearly 50 miles within the first two days of captivity. On the second day, one of Herlik's captors played Russian roulette with him in an effort to acquire classified information.
"When I heard that click, I said to myself, 'I'm not going to get wasted this way in this jungle,' so then I started to lie," he said.
The men faced extensive interrogations and were kept in small holes in the ground with only eight inches of space between their faces and dirt. They were later taken by Cambodian soldiers.
"I told the guys, 'They might be holding us for another three to five years, but we'll all come out of this together,'" he said. "I tried to keep their spirits up that way."
After being held for a month, the men were released by the Cambodians. Herlik said he believes he was set free for three reasons: a letter of friendship written to Cambodian Prince Norodum Sihanouk by President Richard Nixon, assistance from the Australian ambassador and prayer.
In his career, Herlik has flown more than 912 hours in combat situations and has been awarded 25 Air Medals, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.
Herlik started giving speeches about his experiences while attending the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Va.
When he moved to Martinez in 1981, he continued sharing his story. Since he moved to the area, he has spoken at Fort Gordon, Rotary Clubs and schools.
"In addition to just telling my story, I would talk to them about what freedom really means," he said. "People here don't realize how good they have it."
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