“I needed a way to remember the 10 guys that I served with, that lost their lives serving their country.”
John Pierson is a U.S. Air Force Search and Rescue Vietnam Veteran and he wanted to find a way to honor his friends that were lost in the Vietnam War, in a way that was significant and public. So he started playing the bagpipes at memorial services to honor the fallen comrades.
“I served during Vietnam but I did not go. I volunteered because all the guys I trained with went, and I kind of felt like I didn’t pay my dues so now I’m trying to make up for that,” Pierson said.
The 68-year-old Pierson started learning to play the bagpipes about 14 years ago, and now it’s turned into almost a full-time job. He started a company called Military Honors by the Pipes, and he has 10 to 12 active pipers to handle the many requests to play at services around the state.
“The demand is huge, I have played for over 400 veterans just this year alone,” Pierson said.
The bagpipers play for first responders, police, fire and EMTs, and do other services as well.
One of his most memorable moments was playing at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, for one of his para rescue instructors who was lost in Vietnam about 18 months after Pierson had graduated from the school.
“He was a huge part of my career and he and his entire crew on Jolly 67 were lost in Vietnam,” he said as he choked up a bit, just thinking of the history and magnitude of the Arlington cemetery.
His friend’s remains were found and identified, and the family asked Pierson to play his bagpipes at the funeral. It was during that service Pierson came up with the idea of the nonprofit to provide pipers for the military and first responders’ services. The nonprofit has been growing ever since.
Military Honors by the Pipes is funded completely by donations and Pierson said the Cow Creek Tribe in Roseburg has been very generous in helping fund the group. The tribe felt Pierson’s work was important enough that it donated $5,000 to the cause.
The group also receives donations from the Oregon Community Foundation and other organizations.
“We think with the pipers we have, and with some real sponsorships, we could do 3,500 veterans every year just in Oregon,” Pierson said.
There are 900 veterans that are buried in Oregon every month that receive military honors, according to Pierson.
His talents have been in big demand for services, especially with many of the World War II veterans passing away, with most in their 90s now. Vietnam era veterans are also dying.
So Pierson moved from Bend to Roseburg where many of the services for which he performs are held. He came to the area because of the support here for veterans.
“I came back to Douglas County because of the veterans’ community. This is a world class community for veterans,” said Pierson.
Pierson’s passion to honor veterans and others has provided comfort to grieving families and friends of departed veterans.
Pierson was scheduled to play “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes at the VA Quarterly Remembrance Memorial Service Wednesday, at the new section of the Veterans’ Cemetery on the VA grounds, but his instrument had a malfunction.
He was honored, however, during the ceremony with the presentation of an American flag for playing his bagpipes at hundreds of services.
“It’s an outstanding job that John does,” said Jim Little, a 30-year Navy veteran, who served in Vietnam, and emceed the memorial service. “It really adds to the honor of our ceremony, and it makes it even more meaningful because of why he’s doing it.”
Pierson was recently asked to be in a movie/documentary that is based on a rescue mission in April 1966. The incident involved one of his para rescue brothers, who was on a mission in Vietnam, called Operation Abilene. It was a group of Army soldiers who were ambushed and the para rescueman, William Pitzenbarger, made several trips to load up 60 of the wounded soldiers onto a helicopter. He was killed as he defended a unit of soldiers pinned down by an enemy assault.
“It took 34 years for the powers that be to honor him with the Medal of Honor and he absolutely earned it, no question about it,” Pierson said.
A call was put out for Air Force para rescuemen to come back to Washington, D.C., to be a part of the recreation of the Medal of Honor ceremony, which Pierson said was the largest Medal of Honor ceremony in U.S. military history.
“When they made the call, they asked me to bring my pipes,” Pierson said. “We were filmed in the Medal of Honor recreation ceremony, and it was pretty moving for all of us.”
The movie has been in the works for about 15 years and it’s finally going to be finished around the first of the year.
Pierson said there are four quarterly services at the VA Cemetery each year, and the public is always welcome to attend. The services are normally held at 1 p.m. Thursdays and honors veterans who have passed away.