RICHMOND - Jack L. Ernest of Richmond says if he gets a chance to speak after being inducted into the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame Class of 2012 on Thursday in Dayton, he knows what he wants to say.
"It's humbling, it's a great honor, of course, but at the same time it's a humbling thing, because immediately when I was notified that I was accepted to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I immediately thought of fellow veterans that are maybe even more deserving than myself and also thinking about buddies that never made it back from Vietnam that also would probably have been just as deserving as I am, so it's humbling," said Ernest, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who will be among 15 men and women inducted during ceremonies at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
"It's a great honor, probably one of the highest honors I have achieved as a veteran, but I know that if they give me a chance to speak up there, that's what I'll say - I am receiving this as an honor, and I accept this for all veterans, for all the guys out there that have fought and even for the guys who never made it back," said Ernest, a member and nominee of AMVETS Post 275 of Steubenville.
HONOREE — Jack L. Ernest of Richmond, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, will be among 15 being inducted Thursday in the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame Class of 2012.
-- Janice R. Kiaski
The inductees will join 428 others who are enshrined in the Ohio Veterans Hall of Fame which "is dedicated to recognizing Ohio veterans who, after their military service, put their skills and abilities to work in their local communities - and by their continued service and positive accomplishments, inspired their fellow citizens," according to its website.
"This will be a great day to honor 15 Ohioans who have served both their country and community, particularly in such a distinctive venue as the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, surrounded by exhibits honoring other great men and women who've served our nation," said Tom Moe, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services and a 2009 inductee of the hall. "The men and women we're honoring in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2012 represent one of the greatest things about our veterans' community - that when someone leaves the military, they very often continue to serve."
In Ernest's case, he founded Welcome Home Ministries Inc. in 1988 initially to work with Vietnam veterans and other veterans through counseling and assistance, helping them with their daily lives while speaking on their behalf and serving as an advocate.
The chaplain of the Steubenville-based Vietnam Veterans Support Group said he later expanded the ministry to become a worldwide ministry of peace and reconciliation, one that partnered with other ministers and ministries and resulted in his return to Vietnam 44 times, the last time in 2005.
In 2001, for instance, the ministry partnered with Operation Blessing International, working in concert with a team of 40 health care progressions in returning to Vietnam for a two-week period to conduct humanitarian operations and varied health care outreaches.
Ernest was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Omega Bible Institute of Monroe, La., for his achievments and contributions for his humanitarian outreaches in Southeast Asia and his service to fellow veterans here at home.
Recognized in 2007 as the Jefferson County Veteran of the Year, Ernest said Welcome Home Minstries underwent a name change in 2005, now known as We Believe Ministries Inc. He is founder and president of the evangelistic ministry.
"I still go around, speaking and preaching and do a lot of veterans services, and churches have me come in and want to honor veterans and hear me speak," Ernest said, noting, for example, he'll be the keynote speaker locally for the Marine Corps Ball in Weirton on Nov. 10 and speak on Veterans Day at a church in Charleston.
The approach of the awards ceremony was occasion for Ernest to reflect on his military experience and life afterwards during a recent interview.
The son of the late Howard and Helen Crupe Ernest grew up in Beech Bottom. "Actually, there used to be a little community below that called Power because there was an electrical power plant there," he said of where his father worked. Ernest graduated from Wellsburg High School, Class of 1964, and joined the Marines in July of 1965.
"I volunteered to join the Marines during war time, which I was advised not to do, and then I ended up actually volunteering to go to Vietnam because I wanted to serve my country, and I wanted to fight," Ernest said.
He served 13 months in Vietnam.
"I was a rifleman, a squad leader, a radio man and then they sent me to Vietnamese language school," Ernest said.
He was one of two Marines out of a 1,200-man battalion randomly chosen for the intense schooling in the language that he described as "very, very, very difficult to learn."
"They sent me to Okinawa, Japan, to be trained in the Vietnamese language," Ernest said. It was 30 days of school, five days a week, eight hours a day. The teachers were Vietnamese, the training a mix of headsets and tapes, writing and drills where an instructor would pick up an item, say an orange or a rifle, and say the word in Vietnamese, then have it repeated in turn.
"Once my training was complete, they returned me to Vietnam and promoted me to E4 corporal and transferred me in to S2 intelligence, and I became the battalion translator-interrogator-interpreter and also was chief scout for the battalion. I was in charge of 12 scout teams which consisted of one Marine and then a former Viet Cong soldier who had given himself up - and there were varied reasons why they did that - and then the Marine was also schooled in the Vietnamese language. We coupled that with a former enemy solider, and they called that a scout team, and they would be deployed with a platoon or company that was going out to fight, so if they captured an enemy soldier, they could interrogate him right on the spot and gain very valuable information like in life-and-death situations, so I was in charge of those 12 scout teams. I was the chief scout," said Ernest.
"It was crazy," Ernest said in retrospect. "I'm only 19 years old, and I have that much responsibility, and here I am a key person in a battalion of 1,200 Marines. I'm the guy that they're depending upon to get the info.
"How in the heck does a 19-year-old take on something like that and not only take it on, do it, apply it and make it work. It's not just something they give to you and you try it out. You had to do it," he said.
A Purple Heart recipient, Ernest said he returned home after being discharged from the Marines - a return home where he never talked about his experiences, combat or otherwise.
Such were the times, according to Ernest, "because the shame was so great."
Applying for a job or even car insurance, Ernest discovered, was precipitated by inquiries related to his service in Vietnam, the discovery of his being in combat and wounded making him "a risk," he said.
"They don't want combat veterans," he said of what was an employer mentality then.
Ernest ultimately got a job at Weirton Steel after making an appeal to his uncle for help.
"I was married, wanted to settle down and do the American dream," said Ernest, who worked in the Basic Oxygen Plant for 24 years, including as a boss.
That dream blurred when Ernest and his wife, Patsy, were involved in a serious motorcycle accident - a dream that would take a new focus.
It was during his recovery, he said, that "I gave my life to the Lord and became born again and my wife also."
Ernest heeded a calling into the ministry, he said, and in 1988 founded Welcome Home Ministries.
"I started off working with veterans and doing counseling with guys and helping wherever I could with them and that was through the Vietnam Veterans Support Group," he said.
"In 1989 I was invited to go back to Vietnam, and I went back for the first time, and we went back with a team from CBS' '60 Minutes' and Morley Safer," Ernest said. "He had a film crew and a team, and they met us in Vietnam, because we were the first Americans ever to return to the country since the end of the war in 1975, and also we were the first veterans to ever go back, so CBS and '60 Minutes' filmed it all, and it was a documentary released nationally," Ernest said.
"It was very difficult to go back - all the emotions and pain and bad memories," Ernest said.
And yet, there was a purpose.
Ironically, the 19-year-old who had absorbed the Vietnamese language would now discover years later in adulthood that he still had a grasp of it, something that would facilitate his mission work to come through Welcome Home Ministries.
"It was during that trip that I felt the Lord showed me this is what I want you to do," he said of his work through Welcome Home Ministries.
Ernest said no one knew he could speak Vietnamese, not even his wife who was surprised to discover that after she heard him speak to an elderly Vietnamese cleaning lady when they were at the old Pittsburgh Airport.
"Normally on an average, a foreigner that comes to this country, if they're not speaking their native tongue daily the average is in five to seven years they lose the ability to be fluent in their own native tongue," Ernest said, suprised himself that more than 20 years had lapsed since he'd spoken the Vietnamese language.
That first visit back to Vietnam, Ernest realized he remembered more than he realized as he was able to also understand the conversation of two Vietnamese teens trying to determine his nationality.
"It lay dormant in me," Ernest said of the reawakening of the foreign language in him.
"So here's what I say - God restored the ability to me to speak and understand that language because he was going to use me in Vietnam to help the poor, the orphans, the underground churches, so here I am back in the country I swore I'd never go back to, understanding the language again," he said, recalling how he stunned his peers and Safer at a restaurant when he spoke Vietnamese to the waitress, requesting bread.
The language retention came as a blessing in his return trips afterwards, all 44 of them, according to Ernest, whose evangelistic ministry shifted from Welcome Home Ministries to We Believe Ministries Inc.
On Veterans Day, Ernest said the movie "Doughboy," recently filmed in Wheeling sports a familiar face to him - himself. At his wife's urging, Ernest said he auditioned for the movie where his role includes an interview at the beginning and a scene in a veterans home with actor Terry Kiser of "Weekend at Bernie's."
While the national release is 2013, on Veterans Day it will be on the big screen at some theaters across the country, including locally in Wheeling and Moundsville.
He also has a role in a movie entitled "Random Acts of Christmas," which was filmed locally in Moundsville, according to Ernest.
As Veterans Day nears, Ernest said his thought is to encourage veterans to never give up. "Never let your dream be trampled on, your service, your commitment to our country. A lot of veterans, I think they feel that their service was in vain, that they have been forgotten by society, our government."
He said he believes veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are suffering and shared a story of having a recent conversation with a young disabled veteran, both arms missing, his sight gone, his mouth disfigured.
Ernest said he introduced himself as a U.S. Marine, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in combat and came close to death twice by age 19. Ernest asked for permission to give him a hug and did so.
Ernest thanked the young veteran for his service.
"It was my honor," the veteran replied, his appreciative father witnessing the exchange and tearfully commenting, "I will never forget the day a stranger held my son."
"And I just told him, 'we're not strangers - we're brothers. We are combat veterans.'"
"So I've been granted a great honor (with the award) but it's not just for me or about me," Ernest said.
"Like I said, I receive this honor, but I accept it for all the veterans because everyone is worthy, I think."
(Kiaski can be contactedat firstname.lastname@example.org.)