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The pride behind the badge

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Ten grenade explosions reverberated through the night air as a group of Airmen fiercely defended their posts against the incoming North Vietnamese Army forces.

Sergeant William "Pete" Piazza peered around a wall of Bunker 10 inside Bien Hoa Air Base at the enemy position some 200 yards away. The attackers had overtaken a perimeter sandbag bunker and now lobbed fire toward Bunker 10. Dim flares lit up the balmy night as shells and gunfire rattled the scene.

It was 3 a.m. on Jan. 31, 1968, and the infamous Vietnam Tet Offensive had begun. For the American troops on the ground in Vietnam -- the Airmen at Bien Hoa included -- it was one of the most hellacious nights they'd seen.

About 700 NVA troops encircled Bien Hoa that fateful night in '68. The scores of communist fighters were up against only about 200 on-duty Airmen. But Sergeant Piazza, with the 3rd Security Police Squadron, only cared about his assailants behind those sandbags.

"I looked over where the main line of resistance was and saw about a platoon of NVA troops just marching by," the retired senior master sergeant says. "They were probably less than 100 yards away. They were going past us just outside the line of light and I said 'we're surrounded.'"

In the opening moments of the skirmish, Sergeant Piazza scooped up an M-16 with a 148 grenade launcher. Settling in at Bunker 10, he traded grenade rounds with the sandbag antagonists. He would peek out from the wall, then aim, shoot, withdraw. He waited for their return fire, then repeated the process.

"It was like a wild west movie where you've got the good guy and the bad guy and they're both behind buildings and one guy will stick his head out and go 'bang bang bang,'" Sergeant Piazza says. "Then the other guy will stick his head out and go 'bang bang bang.' The same thing until one of them drops. There were bullets flying all the way around. Why they didn't hit us God only knows."

In the end Sergeant Piazza hit his target dead-on, with a 200-yard grenade launcher shot in poor light while taking heavy fire. His enemies had fired 13 shots. He found purchase on grenade No. 10. In his own words, he "got lucky."

Sergeant Piazza's valiant efforts that day would earn him a Silver Star. But he says he didn't think about what he was doing. He was just doing his job.

All told, Sergeant Piazza was an Air Force Security Forces sergeant for almost 29 years. With three years in Vietnam and deployments in Japan, the Philippines and Korea, there's not much he hasn't experienced in his line of duty. He has a simple statement for what it was like.

"We have 45 minutes of boring then 15 minutes of pure hell," Sergeant Piazza explains.

The determination that carried Sergeant Piazza through nearly three decades of security forces work in uniform is still with him today. There's a bounce in the 67 year old's step and the word "retirement" -- though technically appropriate for his employment status -- is just plain crazy talk.

Now, in his spare time, Piazza pours himself into a new cause. The Air Force Security Forces Association is what gets the man out of bed in the morning. The mission of the association is simple: support all security forces personnel and ensure the traditions are passed on to the next generation.

And Sergeant Piazza's not alone.

Several thousand retired and active security forces personnel fill the association's rank and file, which spans countries and continents. But while there are many different groups, the Heartland Chapter of the AFSFA holds the quiet distinction of being one of the most active.

"The goals of the Heartland Chapter are to assist and give comfort to the people who are out there and show them that 'hey we went through this. It's nothing new, you can do it.' We're here to help them, and this is our way of saying thanks for what they're doing -- carrying on the tradition of the cop career field," he said.

Association members hold several mainline events throughout the year, such as holiday banquets, charity fundraisers, and attend deployment ceremonies of many security forces personnel. Twice a year the association delivers food and beverages to all security forces personnel on duty at Tinker and bases across Oklahoma.

They do it because they sense the camaraderie of being a military cop. And because they want the next generation to have things they didn't, Sergeant Piazza explains.

"Like most of us in the association, when we were out there guarding the planes and doing whatever, we didn't have anybody come out," Sergeant Piazza says.

On the night of Feb. 14, four association members, including Sergeant Piazza, delivered donuts and orange juice to the midnight-shift crews working the Tinker gates. Retired security forces stalwarts Jim Rasco, Bob Norman and Walt Chrysler joined with Piazza to make the annual deliveries. With a biting wind and frigid temperatures, the retired senior NCOs lamented that a late-night pastry could've done wonders for them back in the day. The four men took time to converse with each person on duty at each gate, and related their appreciation in a firm handshake.

"That is our way of saying to them 'thanks for being here and for doing the job,'" Sergeant Piazza says.

One thing is certain about cop units -- they're a tight-knit group. When a job carries you in harm's way by definition, you must depend on those around you to survive. The security forces at Tinker and abroad exemplify this truth every day. There's a tangible camaraderie found there that few can fathom, unless placed in similar circumstances, and this brotherhood is what the Security Forces Association is all about, Sergeant Piazza says.

"If you go to any of the units you'll notice the cop units have some of the best camaraderie," Sergeant Piazza says. "Most of the cops are close. You work out there with one person on the line and you get to know that person a heck of a lot better, especially because you're protecting each other to protect the base. Basically you're putting your life in their hands."

The Heartland Chapter of the Air Force Security Forces Association is open to any law enforcement personal, whether military or civilian. The chapter meets on the third Saturday of each month at 9:30 a.m. at Denny's on Interstate 40 and Douglas Boulevard. For more information contact Pete Piazza at 921-8900.