4 Arizona veterans tell their stories, including man who helped raise Iwo Jima flag
Each year, Arizona’s Veterans Medical Leadership Council recognizes a few notable honorees they think deserve thanks and attention.
We’ll begin though on a sad note. As we were preparing this story, World War II Army vet Ollie Babbitts, a longtime resident of Chandler, died on Wednesday, just one month short of his 100th birthday.
Babbitts helped plant the famous flag at Iwo Jima.
“It was a turning point in the war, and I was there,” he said earlier this year.
While Ollie is now gone, his amazing story lives on. He lit up with excitement when describing the events of that day in 1945.
“We raised the flag and everyone cheered and yelled when that flag went up. Oh ho ho!”
Babbitts said the immortal Iwo Jima moment, captured in a famous photo and also including Arizonan Ira Hayes, changed the way people looked at the stars and stripes.
“You’d never forget it. And it changed everyone’s mind. That was my flag," Ollie said.
Babbitt’s death this week reduces the already dwindling population of cherished World War II vets. According to the National World War Two Museum, less than 4,000 remain in Arizona.
As you might expect, many vets here are older. There are almost 40,000 who served in Korea, including Bud Woodall, who cheated death there while in the Navy.
“I had the 8 to 12 watch in the morning, and my boss relieved me at noon, and a half-hour or so later, we got hit right at the evaporators, and he was mortally wounded. Robert Potts was his name,” Woodall recalled.
“You know, in another half-hour, that would’ve been me there, not him.”
After leaving the Navy, Woodall got his college degree on the GI plan and later worked in the burgeoning aerospace industry.
“Back then when I first started, we were just getting started with the computerized design of aircraft. Since then, I’ve been working on space shuttles, aircraft. I even worked on a submarine one time.”
Over 180,000 Vietnam Veterans are estimated to call Arizona home, including Terry Araman.
“A lot of people died. It was my job to keep people alive, as much as possible. When people were injured, we called in helicopters to take them away if they were injured seriously.”
While serving in the Army in Vietnam, Araman was exposed to Agent Orange. And when he came home from his deployment, he and others didn’t feel welcome.
“So, a lot of us did exactly what I did, which was hide the fact that I had been to Vietnam or that I had even been in the Army. And it wasn’t until many years later that I would open up and even talk about the fact that I had been there," Araman said.
The experience understandably took a toll on Araman.
“I don’t even remember when I wake up in the morning sometimes that I’ve been crying or screaming out things from my Vietnam experience," Araman said.
To help cope with his own PTSD and guide younger vets, Araman later founded MANA House, a Phoenix-based transition living center for veterans experiencing homelessness.
“And I realized that in order to help other veterans, younger veterans, especially those who were coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, I needed to open up about my own experiences,” Araman said.
About half of Arizona’s vets served in Iraq and in America’s longest war in Afghanistan.
Pete Tsinnijinnie is Navjo and from Chinle. He’s an Army Desert Storm vet who specialized in communications.
“As a Navajo it’s something that, we consider ourselves resilient, despite what we went through. And knowing that, as our background, it distinguishes us that we’re able to survive something,” Tsinnijinnie said.
And there’s Sandra Harris, who served three decades as one of the Air Force’s pioneering African-American women.
“I would volunteer to do stuff. I would come in an hour early, and I’d stay an hour later. It’s my airplane, and I’m gonna work it. I’m gonna know everything about this airplane. And I enjoyed it! I was in for 30 years, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Everyone thought I was crazy.”
In Arizona, Harris is also known for her voice.
“I sing in the chapel, I sing all over the Valley — at the Diamondbacks game, the Coyotes, the Mercury — I’ve always started off in those areas, singing the National Anthem and at some churches.”