Larry and Kathy Winters draw from the past to prepare a new generation for the future.
As the UTV sprints up the hill to the open field serving as the overflow parking lot at Melton Hill Park in Hardin Valley, I can see that there is a sense of urgency in today’s activities. Retired Marine Larry Winters has no trouble spotting me, as I’m the only person in sight wearing overalls and sporting a camera with a large, professional lens. There is no time to waste, and as soon as I jump in the vehicle, we are off to the races.
As the Unit Commander of the local Young Marines chapter, Larry is already hours into what will turn into a very long day. As we barrel toward the starting line of this year’s Marine Mud Run, we pass several volunteers of all ages. Even in a rush, Larry is sure to wave or salute, dishing out compliments and thanking them by name for offering their time to make this event a success.
As he shuttles me from obstacle to obstacle, I can see the happiness and pride that Larry feels. After 20 years of service to his country, he’s still not finished. He knows what the Young Marines can do for the youth of East Tennessee, and he is passionate to do everything in his power to set these kids up for success.
Growing up in East Tennessee, it wasn’t long before Larry started to feel the wanderlust that would spur him on to bigger things. “I didn’t see much of a future for a 17 year old growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee in the late fifties,” says Larry. “So the Marine Corps was for me. I wanted to prove myself and do a lot of things. My goal was to be the best the Marine I could be.” Encouraged by a boxing coach who saw his potential, he was off to Parris Island.
Making good on his word, Larry’s hard work earned him every accolade available to a graduating Marine. As the smallest graduate in his class, he was already on a path to bigger things.
With the onset of Vietnam War, he was sent on his first tour as part of an underwater demolition team tasked with blowing up a series of coral reefs at Da Nang Harbor to both widen and deepen the entrance to make room for war ships sent to aid in the endeavor. Sleeping on the beaches at night, life was exciting for this young Marine still considering his position lucky as a “soft target.” For all of the horror happening miles away, he never heard a shot fired. But all of this would change.
Meanwhile in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Larry’s future wife Kathy was starting to see the hellish realities of young men returning from a foreign land, ravaged by war. As casualties poured in, Kathy was recruited to serve her country in the United States Army Nurse Corps. Fresh out of nursing school, she found herself in charge of two 60-bed surgical wards.
Hundreds of soldiers passed through these wards permanently scarred in the service of their country. Many left an indelible mark on Kathy’s psyche. “One kid, I remember vividly,” she recalls. “We got him processed out. He had really bad burns to his face and body. The next day he’s at my door. He says, ‘I don’t know where to go. My fiancé won’t look at me, and she won’t talk to me.’ He was probably 17 or 18 years old, and he had nowhere to go.” The exchange still haunts her today.
Apart from the physical wounds, she saw the underlying emotional toil, although the men there were hesitant to speak about their experiences. “In Vietnam, nobody worried about the mental toils,” she explains. “It was certainly something for people in the field, but the guys coming back? They never talked about it. It was a very isolated, intuitive type of thing. It wasn’t something they discussed.”
Running a seven-man team, every mission had the potential to be their last.
At 24 and now at the rank of Sergeant, Larry was called upon yet again to serve his country in his second tour of Vietnam. Far away from the beaches, he found himself in the jungle leading reconnaissance missions. “They quit sending Lieutenants to the field,” he explains. “They just didn’t have the experience. They’d get on the trails and get ambushed, and then you’d lose the whole team. They just never came back. Sometimes you’d find a body. Sometimes you wouldn’t find anything.”
In a miraculous twist of fate, at the end of 27 recon missions, Larry did not lose a single man. Considering the environment he found himself in, this is nothing less than shocking. Running a seven-man team, every mission had the potential to be their last. Engaging the enemy, their options were limited. “You either fight your way out of it, run your way out of it, or eliminate the threat,” he says. In such a vulnerable position, every movement could be lethal. “You don’t speak. You don’t cook food. You don’t wear helmets,” he explains. “You’ve got to stay engaged. You’ve got to think about what you’re doing.” But in the end, he did not leave unscathed. Wounded not once, but twice, he returned home to the United States on a stretcher with a bullet in his spine. “I was in Millington Naval Hospital for a long time,” he says. “I was paralyzed on my left side for almost two years.” As for his team, under a new leader they were killed just one week after Larry was taken away. Their deaths still weigh heavy on his heart, leaving him guilt-stricken to this day.
Shaken, he nevertheless vowed to move ever forward. Luckily for him, he found a partner to join him in his endeavors. Out of the Marine Corps, he found himself working as an engineer in Los Angeles for Humana hospitals when he met a lovely young nurse teaching there. In a fortuitous elevator ride, Kathy found herself alone with Larry and the relationship blossomed from there. Now married for forty years, their bond is as strong as ever.
With the resolve that made him such an effective Marine and the support of an equally driven partner, Larry set out to establish his empire. Working his way through a series of escalating roles, he eventually founded a successful architectural business of his own in California. But the hills of East Tennessee proved to possess a siren’s song too strong to keep the couple on the west coast.
Retirement, however, was not in the forecast, at least not in the traditional sense. “At the age of 60 he says, ‘I think I’m going to retire,’” explains Kathy. “And I said, ‘Well, you need to get a hobby because I’m not it!’” Thus began their current trajectory. After seeing a sign reading “Learn To Fly Here,” the hook was set.
Learning to fly wasn’t enough. Returning home one day, Larry announced to his wife that he had bought an airport in Seymour, Tennessee. The year was 2005. He explained to Kathy that they had five years to pay it off, and true to his word, he did just that. It is a pristine facility home to nearly 40 airplanes. “Larry’s a visionary,” Kathy says. “He knows what he wants, and he makes it happen.”
It’s this passion that has made him such an effective leader over the years, and now, he channels this into his work with the local chapter of the Young Marines. As Unit Commander, he works with his wife to improve the lives of the children in the program by instilling good core values in the program’s participants.
The group has taken numerous trips over the years, visiting Washington D.C. several times. Forever tenacious, Larry has worked hard to make these happen. After unreliable transportation failed them on one journey, he was quick to right the ship. In need of a bus, Larry approached the Marine Corps League. “He said, ‘I want a check for $20,000, and I’m not leaving here tonight until you write it,’” Kathy recalls, beaming with pride. True to his word, he left that night with a $20,000 check.
Forever going above and beyond the call of duty, Larry and Kathy have also carved out eight acres of their airpark to dedicate to the Young Marines, and Larry has invested countless hours outfitting the land with facilities to serve the organization. What once was a blank canvas now hosts an impressive gun range, pavilion, and the beginnings of what will soon be an extensive obstacle course. “He’s just amazing,” Kathy says. “I can just sit here and think of the work and the hours that he’s put in for these kids. He’s such an impressive man.” Larry is equally enamored with Kathy, and you can see it in the loving glances they share. All these years later, they continue to selflessly serve their country, inspiring a new generation to do the same.