Two nights before sitting in the audience at Thursday’s Veterans Day program at Philomath Middle School, 67-year-old Shane Fritz read through the letters that her brother had sent home from Vietnam in 1968 where he served with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“He was writing to my grandmother, so I know he made an attempt to be pretty upbeat about things,” Fritz said about her brother, Paul Jeffrey Cochran. “In this letter in April, he wrote about how he wondered if the flowers were blooming in spring and how he looked forward to his return to Philomath.”
The following month on May 1, 1968, Cochran was killed at age 20 during the Tet Offensive.
“His death really impacted our family,” Fritz said. “I don’t think my mom really got over it.”
Cochran, who graduated from Philomath High School with the Class of 1966, earned special recognition at this year’s middle school program through a presentation put together by Philomath Mayor Eric Niemann, himself a veteran of the U.S. Army.
“I learned a lot about Paul Cochran, his sacrifice, his service to our nation,” Niemann said about putting together the program. “I learned a lot about his family and the inner workings of 101st Airborne Division.”
Niemann, assisted by his son, Grant, presented Fritz with the Screaming Eagle Memorial Aerie plaque, a letter from the 101st Airborne Division’s commanding general and Screaming Eagle Challenge Coins, which also went to Fritz’s daughters.
“I went through old pictures and sort of gave the mayor an idea of Jeff’s life, because he moved around a lot, but one of the things he wrote home to grandma was he felt like he had a lot in common with different men in the troop because many of them were from places where he had lived — Boston, Guam and so on,” said Fritz, who graduated with the PHS Class of 1970 and today lives in Stayton.
Cochran came to Philomath in August 1964 and after graduating from the local high school, he enlisted in the Army in November 1966.
Fritz recalled when she received the news that her older brother had been killed in action.
“I was called out of one of my sophomore classes ... and I couldn’t imagine what I was going to be punished for,” she remembered. “But I went and that’s where I got the news. As soon as the school year was out, we moved up to Philomath so we could be there for my grandma.”
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Cochran lived in Philomath at 1545 College St., with his grandmother, Marguerite Cochran. His mother, Beverly Durham, inherited the home and upon her death, left it to the city of Philomath for the establishment of a park, with the condition that it include a memorial to Cochran.
In the middle school’s hallway headed toward the gym, visitors could pause for a look at Cochran’s life with photos, medals, flags and his uniform, on loan from the Benton County Historical Museum.
During his speech to students, Niemann talked to them about the branches of military service. He personalized the talk with details of his own experiences on his first day at the military academy, stressing the importance of taking an oath.
“I decided to kinda go more macro and not just talk about the military academy I attended but the fact that there are five military service academies,” Niemann said. “A lot of times, a talk like this can plant the seed of a young person thinking about ‘hey, maybe I want to be an officer in the Navy or the Army or the Air Force.’ But they have to kind of know about those things so I saw this as an opportunity to at least provide them with some knowledge of those institutions and what they do.”
Steve Bell, middle school principal, stepped in to serve as master of ceremonies in place of Philomath Fire & Rescue Chief Tom Miller, who was in California fighting wildfires.
The middle school band, under the direction of Shannon Webb, played various selections, including each service song during which veterans of those branches stood in recognition. The New Notes and Madrigal choirs (sixth, seventh and eighth graders) performed three songs, including “America the Beautiful.”
The Oregon State University ROTC presented the colors while the middle school band played the national anthem. Student Nick Purcell followed by leading all in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Students Brielle Reeves, Ivie Tussing, Natalee Barton, Shyann Barton, Abilyn Mahoney, Bailey Bell, Abby Workman, Nadia Durski, Hanna McDaniel and Brooke McDaniel performed the 101st Airborne Division song. Eighth-grade trumpet players Ahnika Tryon, Jenica Baker, Tomy Harris, Henry Katsikis, Gabe Colligan, Brianna Planalp then played taps.
The program recognized mothers and spouses of veterans by asking them to stand to receive yellow ribbons that were passed out by students Kamilla Grimmer, Purcell, Jayden McMullen, Warwick Bushnell, Grant Niemann, Logan Cook and Isabelle Muir.
Veterans were the guests of honor after the program at a reception in the middle school’s library.