We didn’t know what we had


The first Navy Captain I ever met was an American hero.
The first Marine Officer I ever met was a Medal of Honor recipient.

I and 35 other new Midshipmen at the University of New Mexico were too young, too fresh, and too naive to know what we had in our midst. We lacked the context from which to fully appreciate the rare moment in history we all shared.

To us, they were just men.

Our Commanding Officer was Captain Leo T. Profilet, an A-6 pilot and Prisoner of War from 1967 to 1973.

(Arlington Cemetery)

When he was released almost exactly 42 years ago, he and 107 other former POWs were flown from Hanoi to Clark Air Base in the Philippines aboard three C-141 transports.

As the senior member on board the first aircraft to land, Captain Profilet was the first to speak to the waiting crowd. He told them, “Thank God, the United States of America, and all you wonderful, good-looking people.”

Our Marine Advisor at the Unit was Major Jay Vargas, Medal of Honor recipient.

What fools we were. We didn’t know what we had. What a privilege it was – what an honor – to begin our military careers under such leadership. It wasn’t until later that the significance of that brief, special moment in our lives really began to sink in.

At the time, though, Captain Profilet was the gentle, noble Commanding Officer who always had a smile for his fledgling charges. We admired and respected him as a leader, and would have followed him anywhere.

Major Vargas was the man we all wanted to be. Athletic, handsome and confident, he became the standard against which all other Marines have been measured by us ever since. We adored him, and still do.

They were heroes, but we didn’t fully understand or appreciate that. Instead, we respected them as the men that they were, and for who they had become.

And when it gets down to it, perhaps that is the best way to show respect after all.

“During my years in Hanoi I never lost faith in the American people. When I
learned of the tremendous support given to the POW/MIA cause, the many
organizations who responded to the call of our wives and families, that
wonderful bracelet program, the letter writing campaigns, the profoundly
moving welcome home – I knew that my faith was right on. The strength of our
beautiful nation comes from her people. I hope that all of us, especially our
young people, will become as personally involved in the future of America as
with the POW/MIA cause.

“I thank all of America for getting us home with honor. Let us not forget that
the real heroes are our families who went through years of torment and
anguish. And remember that the families of the men MIA are still undergoing
that torment and anguish. Also, let us not forget the thousands who did not
survive, nor the men who came home wounded, some crippled for life. Theirs was
a far greater sacrifice than mine.

“Leo Profilet retired from the United States Navy as a Captain. He and his
wife Sue resided in California until his death January 30, 2004. He is
survived his wife, two sons, and two daughters.

“Burial Arlington National Cemetery, on 21 April 2004.”
(From the POW network)

Arriving at Clark Air Base along with Captain Profilet in March 1973 was a young aviator named LCDR John S. McCain.


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