Marines Bill Cooper (left) and John Holtman of Foxtrot Co.

A dream come true

Jennifer Joy Helland

Southern California native Jennifer Joy Helland knew since she was a teenager that her dream career would be that of a pilot.

So, joining the Air Force was a means to make that dream a reality.

“Women weren’t allowed to be in combat when I was in the service 19 years ago,” Helland said as she drove to Miami from her home in Tavernier. The American Airlines pilot was headed to Ecuador this week and London next week before she heads to Santiago, Chile with her family for Thanksgiving.

Jennifer Helland with her husband, Marc Munafo, and their children, Alexandra, 12, and Jack, 7.

The 46-year-old mother to Alexandra, 12, and Jack, 7, said two of her childhood friends’ fathers were pilots and ultimately, her inspiration.

“They looked like they were living the good life and always flying to exotic places for their vacation,” she remembered. “So, I thought it’d be fun to go different places and make lots of money!”

After graduating from the Air Force Academy, where she fell in love with and eventually married the starting half back and BMOC Marc Munafo, Helland headed for flight school in Del Rio, Texas before being stationed at Andrews Air Force Base.

She called her post as pilot of a Leer 35 for VIP transport “a great, great job!”

“Half the time, I was flying into civilian airports, which was perfect,” she explained. “That was what I’d always wanted to do anyway!”

In fact, one of her most memorable passengers was Colin Powell on the day he was named Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989.

After being honorably discharged from the 459th Unit Squadron at Andrews in 1992, Helland was immediately hired on as a pilot for American. She was based in Los Angeles piloting a DC-10 to Honolulu, and when she was transferred to Miami, Helland said she came “kicking and screaming!”

“I did not want to leave the West Coast,” she remembered.

Now 18 years later, she reflected on the discipline and structure of the Air Force Academy that were the antithesis of her laid-back SoCal upbringing.

“I used to count the days until graduation,” she laughed. “It’s very challenging for a lot of people. But, it worked out nicely for me because now I have a job that I love!”

120 against 1,200

Bill Cooper

Washington, D.C. native Bill Cooper said after he was discharged from the Marines in 1968 and moved to the Keys four years later, he knew he would never be able to live anywhere else.

He wasn’t prepared for the social backlash permeating the country upon his return from the Vietnam War, and it wasn’t even until this past April that he finally understood the timeline of events on the most unforgettable day of his time in combat.

Marines Bill Cooper (left) and John Holtman of Foxtrot Co.

“There were only hippies and drunks when I got down here,” he laughed. “Nothing else. Besides Christmas, if you heard a car coming down the road, you knew who it was by the sound of the motor.”

Between chartering small sailboats out of Keys Fisheries and delivering truckloads of bikes to vacationing tourists, Bill received an email from the nephew of a Marine with whom he’d fought in Foxtrot Company against the North Vietnamese Army on April 21, 1967.

The company of three platoons, totaling a mere 120 men, held off 1,200 of “the enemy” for five hours until more Marines came by helicopter into the Que Son Valley, a small sharp ridge line between miles and miles of rice paddies.

Cooper recounted how a village leader came to the top of the hill and told Marines his family was being held hostage.

“The whole thing was a setup,” he recounted, explaining the “hammer and anvil” tactic his company frequently used to force out the NVA.

Shortly after first light, Foxtrot was conducting an operation when nine enemy soldiers were sighted running into a tree line with a mortar tube near the village of Binh Son. The company redeployed on two sides of tree complex and launched an attack.

“The only reason we survived was luck,” Cooper said. “For one thing, we slid into a defendable position on a small spit of land no bigger than a city block. Secondly, on that particular day, we had all the cooks and barbers come down from the hill. Everybody wanted to be able to go home and say they were infantry marines. They were young and ready to go into battle, so whereas we normally would’ve had 5,000 rounds, because of them, carrying double the load, we had about 9,000 rounds. At the end of the battle, we had only 19 left over.”

Of the 120 Marines that went into the operation, F Company lost 33 Marines and had another 81 wounded. Cooper was one of only seven that walked off the battlefield that day.

“On two occasions, we had to call cease fire just to remove the bodies,” he recalled.

His assessment that Foxtrot Co. was “the best in the Marine Corp.” is backed by their frequent visits from Senior Marine Generals as well as Moshe Dayan, a well-known Israeli Army General.

Of the reunion earlier this year, in which 44 Marines from Foxtrot Co., Second Battalion, First Marines met in Virginia Beach, Cooper admitted at first he was apprehensive.

Bill Cooper, owner of Bike Marathon Bike Rental, is a Vietnam Veteran and member of one of the most respected small machine gunner units in the Marines.

“I never really knew what happened in Que Son until that day, but there were going to be a lot of family members there, and I really just didn’t want to get wrapped up in that…When I see what’s going on now in the Middle East with people fighting for freedom, that’s what we were doing…I remember two elections ago, there was a college student on the news who said she tood in line for nine hours just to vote. I suppose we were all pretty proud that day.”

While delivering a truckload of bicycles to a family on vacation in Marathon last year, he struck up a conversation with a gentleman standing in the front yard of rental property on Gulfstream Boulevard.

“Turns out, he was the Captain of the company who came in to rescue us that day,” Cooper recalled. “It’s a small world.”



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