DALTON, Ga. – A lot of people know Dalton’s John Hitchens. He has worn a lot of hats in his 65 years – most recently as the head of disaster relief for the Chattanooga Red Cross. Before that he retired as the EMS Director in Whitfield County. Before that he was an ambulance driver and one of the nations very first certified EMT’s/Paramedics. Before all that, however, Hitchens was a “Screaming Eagle” – a member of the 101st Airborne serving in Vietnam.
Hitchens is retired from all that now and passes his time riding his Harley and fishing family lakes with his grandchildren. Very soon, however, people from all across the nation will know John Hitchens. He will be a featured guest on an upcoming episode of “Operation: Fishing Freedom” airing Sunday, February 25 at 8 am ET/7 am CT on Discovery Channel.
NewsChannel 9’s Josh Roe features area veterans weekly in his “Price of Freedom” series. Operation: Fishing Freedom does the same nationally, except always in a fishing boat.
“In a fishing boat, people tend to talk.”
That is the show’s motto. Hitchens agrees.
“In my career I’ve done a lot of TV interviews. Usually they’re 90-second sound bites. But with this show they put a mic on you and then you’re just fishing. You really forget about the camera and the fact that you’re on TV. You let your guard down and share a little bit more freely.”
WHY DID YOU ENLIST?
Hitchens said his father was from Canada but he came to the United States and enlisted in the Navy during World War II in order to become an American citizen.
“Of course in the Vietnam days a lot of people were leaving the U.S. and going to Canada. My Dad did the exact opposite. At the time I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and honestly, there was a little bit of excitement about joining up. I knew people who had been killed in Vietnam so I enlisted and chose to be medic.”
He also went on to join the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles. His first assignment as a medic in Vietnam was in a forward aid station, the very first place casualties came after they were wounded.
“It was a bit overwhelming,” admitted Hitchens. “The things that involved personal risk didn’t scare me. I was young and thought I was invincible. It was the things that involved saving someone else’s life that scared me.”
After a few months at an aid station Hitchens was assigned to an Eagle “Dustoff” crew, choppers that headed into hot zones to evacuate the wounded.
“About one-out-of-ten missions were actually in a hot zone but there was the potential for any mission to become a hot zone every time,” he said.
His final months in Vietnam were as a medic with the Crusader Nation.
“That was a different assignment but it was an awesome feeling being part of 25 or 30 gunships that went out looking for trouble,” said Hitchens.
PAINFUL WAR STORIES
Hitchens has a lot of war stories to tell. Some good, some not so good.
“Outside our aid station we had a sign that read, ‘We treat them, God heals them,” said Hitchens. “You did what you could but in the end, there were some you just couldn’t save. We treated soldiers and the Vietnamese. The hardest was the collateral damage …. the Vietnamese children. The nature of the injuries told us what they’d been hit with. We had to do triage, separating the kids you could save from the ones you couldn’t. That was probably the toughest.”
COMING HOME WASN’T EASY
Hitchens service led him to come home and join an ambulance crew in his hometown of Minneapolis. In spite of his military experience, he said his days on an ambulance came with a new learning curve.
“I’d seen a lot of people die in Vietnam but there you didn’t have to deal with the families,” he said.
That and those “tough” days in Vietnam were likely part of the reason Hitchens became an alcoholic.
“I started drinking real heavy and it became a problem,” he said. “But finally I got married, had kids and realized it was time to grow up. I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for 32 years.”
The company he worked for assigned Hitchens to visit Dalton, Ga. for three days as a consultant for a new ambulance service. He said in those three days he realized he really liked the people, and especially the weather down South. He’s been a Georgia boy ever since.
GOING ON TV
As for the TV show Hitchens said, “The show is being produced out of my hometown of Minneapolis and I went to high school with one of the producers. He called me and asked me to be on the show.”
In its first year Operation: Fishing Freedom aired on several independent networks. This year, however, it was picked up by the Discovery Channel.
“Before I went on my [fishing] trip they sent me some of the previous episodes,” said Hitchens. “After I watched them I called my friend and said, ‘These stories are amazing. I don’t think I’m worthy of going on this show.”
The producer didn’t agree and in November Hitchens hopped aboard his Harley and headed for Marco Island, Fla. where he met up with show host, Ben Olsen.
“They wanted to do something a little different so we went out shark fishing,” said Hitchens. “I expected to be on one of those big fishing boats with a deck chair, rod holders and all that stuff. When I met up with Olsen I had visions of Jaws and thought, ‘We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
The first fishing they did was for shark bait. Using shrimp Hitchens said they caught a ton of sea trout and other fish… so many he actually thought that was going to be the show. Until Olsen asked, “Are you ready to catch what we came for?”
“I thought they were putting me on,” said Hitchens, who had never even fished in salt water before. “Then I hooked up [a shark] and it was like fighting a freight train. I got it to the boat once after about 15 minutes, then it took off and it took another 10 minutes. Then it did it all over again.”
Hitchens said his first catch was a seven or eight foot lemon shark – a far, far cry from catching bass in his family’s lake in Whitfield County.
Hitchens says for now he is content to ride his Harley with a biker club, proudly wearing an A.R.M. patch in association with the Association of Recovering Motorcyclists. He says he is just a regular guy who likes spending his days on the family farm fishing with his children and grandchildren.
He has seen far too many things and experienced far too much to get “starry-eyed” about his TV appearance. He is just proud to be counted among our nation’s veteran’s who “gave back,” and proud to be among the veterans who are sharing their stories with the nation on Operation: Fishing Freedom.