Silver Star for a humble hero

In honor of Memorial Day, we asked some of our employees to share their perspective on what the day means to them. This story was submitted by Travis Klopfenstein, principal accounts manager, Simulation and Training Solutions.

By Travis Klopfenstein

Is it true, the familiar saying, "actions speak louder than words?" In the day-to-day it seems hard to find "actions" amidst the cacophony of words and tweets and "likes." Further, is it even possible to identify honorable actions amidst the constant demonstrations of pride and ego today?

Webster's definitions of honor include: "one whose actions bring respect" and "a keen sense of ethical conduct." I am reminded of Thomas More's quote, and it seems more appropriate today than ever: "If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable."

Fortunately, as Memorial Day approaches, we have the privilege of honoring those who have demonstrated lives of honor in service to our nation. Memorial Day, more than any other national holiday, provides that rare lifting of the cultural fog so we as a nation can catch a glimpse of what honor really means.

At thousands of Memorial Day services across our nation, those who fought in past wars will be remembered—it is their "keen sense of ethical conduct" that causes us to stand and applaud. Tears stream because we see them, graying and quiet, and we know, deep down inside, that these are those "whose actions bring respect."

I know of a story of honor and humility that you have never heard—a story almost impossible to believe as true. Yet, I can attest to its truthfulness because I know the subject! Gary Klopfenstein is my dad's brother—Uncle Gary to me.

Uncle Gary is the type of man's man you want on your team if things go south: natural disaster, accident, zombie apocalypse, you name it.

Growing up, I knew he had flown Hueys in Vietnam. That he had been shot down. That he was a hero. Yet, as is expected of our heroes, he never bragged or exalted himself. It was not until spring of 2014 that I learned of his Silver Star. In fact, 2014 was the first any of us heard of his Silver Star.

Yes, here is a story of a man who earned a Silver Star in 1969, but did not officially receive the honor and recognition until 44 years later! This is the definition of honor and humility. Gary Klopfenstein acted in an honorable way, deserving of our nation's second highest award for valor, yet told hardly anyone!

Here's the story as reported by Peter Tyner in his hometown newspaper, the Mountain Democrat:

At 1:30 a.m. on Aug 30, 1969, the 114th Assault Helicopter Co. received orders to insert combat troops into the assault near the Cambodian border in the Mekong Delta region. Within moments Warrant Officer Klopfenstein launched into the darkness with his human payload, flying lead in his Huey transport helicopter.

Suddenly ground fire ripped through Klopfenstein's descending transport.

The flanking gunships immediately lit up the rice paddies with return fire, but Klop's instruments were now shattered and bullet holes peppered the craft. The engine and hydraulics were dead. He heard moaning from wounded crew members and troops and fought for descent control. Flames were already consuming the wounded bird.

Calling on all his training and discipline, Klop was able to guide the powerless shell to a soft if fiery landing. Fierce fighting raged as Klop now scrambled to save lives. He reached crew and passengers of the burning aircraft, and he organized survivors and guided them to the relative safety of a rice paddy dike. That's when he realized his crew chief, Chuck Zorn, was missing. He knew he had to return to find Zorn somewhere in the flaming wreck and would be in the enemy's sight the whole time. But, like every real hero, he didn't think twice.

"So I found my crew chief alive but pretty badly wounded. I gave him first aid, then carried him to the dike where the survivors could better help," said Klopfenstein.

The modest Klopfenstein doesn't mention it all happened unprotected from enemy fire and the shelter was hundreds of exposed feet away from the scene. Klop guided the evacuation helicopter to the new location by strobe light, then refused to board until he had assisted the last wounded man.

Uncle Gary finished his tour and then headed to Texas to finish his activity duty commitment to the Army. En route to Texas he noticed an envelope in his personnel files. The envelope contained the Silver Star order for his actions on August 30, 1969. However, he was never actually awarded the medal nor told that he could wear it. He quietly assumed that the Army would take care of it.

He later earned his bachelor's degree and began working as a fireman; thirty years later he retired from the Sacramento Metro Fire Department as a battalion chief. While there he developed a complex and successful helicopter division for the department. Best of all, he flew me in one of his Hueys!

I am reminded of the teaching from the good book: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Uncle Gary is the picture of quiet strength, honor, and humility to me. And sure enough, 44 years later, a friend found out about the story and submitted a request for the Army to verify the order and then officially award him the Silver Star.

On April 17, 2014, Gen. Anthony Zinni, USMC (ret) and Joe Galloway (co-author "We Were Soldiers Once and Young" and Vietnam reporter) presented Gary Klopfenstein his Silver Star. He was surrounded by family and friends, and his actions that fateful day in the Vietnam jungle were finally recognized.

So, I can attest to you that actions can be louder than words. I have witnessed the life of one of the greatest men I know. I was born only a few months before my Uncle Gary was shot down in Vietnam, and I observed him for 44 years acting with integrity and honor. That he behaved in such a manner to deserve the Silver Star did not surprise me, that the Army could forget to conduct the ceremony did not surprise me, but I was surprised at the depth of humility to not speak of the oversight.

Where can we look upon honorable men? Scan the faces Memorial Day. Look into the eyes of these soldiers that served our nation. This is where honor resides.

Travis Klopfenstein is a Principal Accounts Manager for Simulation and Training Solutions, Rockwell Collins. He is a combat-decorated veteran with deployments to Ramadi, Iraq and northeastern Afghanistan. He served in remote combat outposts as well as joint operation centers. He worked with small host nation units, as well as the U.S. Marine Corps, Army, Air Force and allied militaries.

Travis holds a Bachelor's degree in History, a Master's in Higher Education Administration, and is completing his MBA with a focus on CyberSecurity. He lives in Oviedo, Florida, with his wife Rachelle and two sons.

Story posted: May 26, 2016

Follow Collins Aerospace on

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • YouTube
  • Instagram