Across the country, Americans proudly stand up to recognize and honor the men and women who have selflessly dedicated their lives to serving the nation. Last Wednesday in Macon County, local and state officials, joined by an enormous crowd of veterans and community members gathered on town square to honor two Macon County men who not only risked their lives for their country, but who also were Prisoners of War (POWs) during the Vietnam war.
"It was so humbling to be standing there next to Nat Henry and Dr. McNish," said Commissioner Chair Kevin Corbin. "Both of those men are true American heroes in every sense of the word. I remember being a young boy in Macon County when those two guys came home. They were heroes to me then and they are heroes to me now. What an experience personally to be involved in giving them medals of honors."
Nathan B. Henry and Dr. Thomas McNish received the highest honor commissioners can give a citizen when they were presented Macon County Medallions of Honor during the special ceremony at town square. Not only were both Henry and McNish POWs during the Vietnam War, since their return, the have both been instrumental in the promotion of Veterans’ affairs as well as countless other civic organizations.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale addressed the crowd and explained that although both men returned home from war to a country that considered them and other Vietnam soldiers to have been morally culpable to some extent for the events that took place during the war, they deserved to be treated with the greatest respect for their sacrifice to the United States of America. “What these two gentlemen will tell you is their definition of heroes is those 83,000 MIAs going back to World War II that are still unaccounted for,” said Beale. “They’ll tell you their mind is on a friend they left in Vietnam or the ones serving today. It’s a very special honor for us to be able to honor these two men, that we recognize not only as Maconians, but as true heroes.”
Commissioner Jimmy Tate noted the importance not only as a commissioner but as a citizen to be able to present the award to Henry. “As a county commissioner and a citizen, this is one of the greatest honors I will ever have the opportunity to take part in, and I am grateful to be here to help honor these men.”
Beale and Tate presented the first medallion to Henry, who was the sole survivor from his platoon in a battle on July 12, 1967 and was captured by the North Vietnam Army. Henry was held captive for almost six years before being released and coming back to Macon County.
Henry has been recognized for his outstanding service and valor to the United States of America by being awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts with Oak Leaf Clusters and numerous other medals for valor.
After returning home, Henry has continued to make him self available to promote veterans and other humanitarian efforts. He became an original member of the Burningtown Fire Department and helped secure land for the construction of the current department. He also served as a charter member of the Macon County Vietnam Veterans Chapter 994 and has served two terms as President and Chairman of the Board of Directors. Henry graduated from Haywood Community College with a degree in horticulture.
“It is great for Tom and [me] to stand here today and receive these awards,” said Henry. It is hard to find words to tell you thank you for all being here for us today.” Henry gave the crowd his famous three points of advice, “Three things you should never forget: Never lose faith in God, country and fellow man.”
Together, Commissioners Bobby Kuppers and Ron Haven presented Dr. McNish with his medallion.
Dr. McNish, who served in the Air force during Vietnam, was captured after being shot down near Hanoi on Sept. 4, 1966. After being held as a POW in North Vietnam for six and a half years, McNish was released. Moving to Macon County when he was just two years old, McNish said he has always considered Macon County home.
McNish earned a Silver Star with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying cross, Bronze Star with a “V” device for Valor, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Achievement Medal, Presidential Unity Citation, Purple Heart with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Prisoner of War medal, Distinguished Unit Citation, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and Vietnam Service Medal with 15 campaign stars for his 30 years of service.
After being released as a POW, he enrolled in Emory University School of Medicine in 1973 and graduated in 1978. He completed his residency in Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas and graduated in 1983 and earned his Master's Degree in Public Health.
McNish has been very active in military medical care serving as Chief Aero Medical Services and Commander of the Transportable Hospital at Myrtle Beach Air Force Base. As the Command Surgeon Office of the Air Force Reserve, Pentagon, Washington, DC, after 30 years of active duty he retired with the rank of Colonel in 1994.
McNish has been instrumental in the repatriation of POWs from Desert Storm and since 1995, has served as the Chairman of the Secretary of Veterans Affair for POWs.
McNish, who now lives in Texas, attributed his success to his upbringing in Macon County. “I learned here in this county from the time I was a kid, the true meaning of patriotism and the true meaning of love for our country because I saw it in the people who lived here everyday. The people here have a good sense of right and wrong and an undeniable love for our country, that and my religious background that I was raised on here is what got me through.”
According to McNish, suffering during imprisonment as a Vietnam soldier, and then returning to a country that shunned those who participated in the war, he believes his experience has allowed the country to learn the importance of properly welcoming home veterans. “One of the good things our country has learned from Vietnam is how to treat those service members returning home. Now you see soldiers get off airplanes to an airport full of applause and thank yous, that was not the case after Vietnam. We have learned it is wrong to blame the soldier for the war.”
Copies of both Medallions of Honor presented to McNish and Henry will be permanently displayed inside the Macon County Courthouse.