Hometown hero: Students pay tribute to fallen alumnus

John Carroll will return in symbolic spirit to the Marist School’s football field on May 23 — four decades after he was killed in action on a covert mission in Laos during the Vietnam War. About 1,200 Marist students will fill the stands, along with Carroll’s 93-year-old mother, Mary Hancock, of Marietta.

His brothers, Jim and Billy Carroll of Fort Lauderdale, and sister Julie Zouzounis of California also will be nearby, along with hundreds of members of the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association, the group that, for the 26th time, is honoring an Atlantan killed in the conflict.

If all goes as planned, a UH-1 Huey helicopter will be parked on the football field. A C-130 turboprop is scheduled to fly over, as well as a single engine Cessna “Bird Dog” observation plane like the one Carroll was flying when shot down on Nov. 7, 1972.

The AVVBA also will erect a 1,500-pound granite memorial, four feet high, adorned with a brass plaque, that cost $4,000.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” said AVVBA member Frank Cox, 72, who played football at Marist with Carroll, who graduated in 1958. “We do this because it needs to be done.”

Father John Harhager, president of Marist School, who OK’ed the ceremony along with the principal, Father Joel Konzen, agrees, after a presentation from Cox and AVVBA president Alan Gravel.

“We’re going to have the whole school assemble,” Harhager said. “There will be a band, an honor guard. The memorial will be placed in our alumni plaza.”

He said it’s appropriate to call out the entire student body because many young people know little if anything about the Vietnam War and “this is a nice way of providing an educational opportunity” for them.

He will be among a half dozen speakers and will remind students that Vietnam veterans, just like those from Afghanistan and Iraq, “deserve the thanks of all Americans.”

Cox, the author of award winning “Lullabies for Lieutenants,” which describes his experiences as a Marine in combat, and “Marist Football: Inside the War Eagle Tradition,” said Carroll, a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, had volunteered for the “extremely hazardous” mission that cost his life.

Accustomed to flying huge B-52 jets, he volunteered to fly the tiny Cessna to find and target enemy soldiers for air strikes.

“He knew it was dangerous but did it anyway,” Cox said.

Carroll’s mother says her son had been scheduled to return home for a temporary leave a week after he was shot down.

“We were told he crash landed, and was armed only with a pistol, a rifle and grenades,” she said. “Pilots flying with him saw him fighting until the end against a swarm of enemy soldiers.”

His body was dragged away and buried. In 2007, American forces found his remains, which were buried at the Air Force Academy.

Jim Carroll, 69, says the Marist ceremony “will be a hell of a compliment to a hell of a guy.”

Billy Carroll, 62, says his brother John was married and had two children. His wife died in the 1990s, and his remains were buried beside hers at the Air Force Academy. His son, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, died of cancer this year.

“It’s awesome he’s being honored,” Billy Carroll said. “We never had any closure after he died. Maybe this will end it.”