• Dec 18, 2018
  • 3:28 AM

Entertainer Tony Orlando and Air Force Veteran, POW Survivor Stephen Long A Melody of Friendship

By Chuck N. Baker
In August, retired Las Vegas Airman Major Stephen Long passed away from complications arising from Parkinson’s disease. The 74-year-old veteran was an ex-prisoner of war in Hanoi, shot down in 1969 over Laos during the Vietnam War. The fighter pilot endured 1,490 days of captivity. After his release and return to the United States, he once again flew for the Air Force.

In the year 2000, Long was now a civilian and named Deputy Director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services. Today hundreds of local veterans remember Long and the dedication with which he performed his duties assisting those who served. As a civilian, he enjoyed fishing, hiking, the outdoors, and music. Long’s love of music and country are what sparked a long friendship with the beloved entertainer, Tony Orlando, who has a long list of hits to his name.

While still transitioning mentally from captivity to freedom, Long was part of group of ex-POWs who came to Texas to experience a performance in their honor. Orlando was one of the celebrities and recalls meeting Long. “He came to Dallas with all POWs and was sitting on the 50-yard line at a Bob Hope event welcoming home the former prisoners. He was not used to daylight yet, he was still adjusting to [having been] in a box. I was on stage doing ‘Yellow Ribbon.’ I said to Mr. Hope, 72 thousand people here, and the song is not even a hit yet! “

Orlando said the song at that time had sold many records, but it was not an instant international hit. Although it first garnered attention in the early 1970s, it was later during the hostage crisis with Iran that its popularity grew exponentially. “It didn’t happen until the Iranian hostage crisis … but many people had put yellow ribbons on their doors much earlier. How did I know that?

Steve walked up to me and said, ‘I want you to know that my family put yellow ribbons on their door.’”

Orlando said he struck up a conversation with the ex-POW. “I said I never had the opportunity to serve my county even though I tried to go to Vietnam and was rejected as 4F. I wanted to go and serve like the rest of my family. It was my ears, narrow auditory canals. They said I’d have trouble hearing orders on the battlefield.” Regarding that exchange, Long’s family would later say the airman had a quick wit and was always fast to respond to a comment or a statement. In this case, Long immediately had the appropriate response. Orlando recalled the moment. “He looked at me and he said ‘You are serving your country.’” Orlando questioned him. “I said how? And he said, ‘That song, ‘I’m coming home, I’ve done my time …you’ve already served your country.’ I’ll never forget those words.”

Not long after, Orlando was opening at the famed Copacabana nightclub in New York and wanted to do something for Long. He offered to bring him to the Big Apple. “I asked him if I paid for him and his wife, (and I had enough money for about eight POWs total), and I paid for their airfare, would they come? I was so moved by him and the POWs.” Long and others agreed to come. In an ironic nod to patriotism Orlando said he put them up at what was at the time the Americana Hotel on 53rd Street. “Oddly enough,” Orlando mused.

The morning after the show, they all had breakfast at the hotel. Orlando paused for a moment, then described the meal. “Breakfast was waffles and pancakes. They piled and piled syrup on pancakes. Long in particular placed the food in his mouth and rolled it around his tongue, like a wine taster. His eyes opened up. He said with a mouthful, “Tony, this is so good.” And from that day forward, I said to Steve, I’m going to dedicate [Yellow Ribbon] to veterans.” And in every live performance since, Orlando salutes America’s military and veterans with this song. He brings the house down with his heartfelt memory of Vietnam veteran Steve Long savoring waffles and pancakes. “I tell those in the audience, ‘You guys never got a parade. I call them out.”

In more recent years his veterans’ audience has largely been made up of those who served in Desert Storm. Orlando has been performing annual patriotic shows in Branson, Missouri each November that raise charitable funds for veterans. The first year at Branson, Orlando said he asked Long if the veterans would come to see the show. “And 300 and their wives and friends showed up on their own, on their own dime. Veterans come every single year since then.”

Today he said thousands attend the performance each year. He explained that he began those concerts some 10 years before the Wounded Warriors project came to be and several years after Desert Storm. “There was no talk about veterans [at that time]. Branson created an awareness of veterans. It’s raised millions of dollars.”

“Steve Long became a brother, a friend; he never missed a year coming to Branson. I’m close to his wife Kathy and I’m like an uncle to daughter Katie. Steve and I became the closest friends. He gave me the feeling that I did serve my country. I thank him to this day that he made me feel that way. He became my family, I became his family. We were as close as any relative, a father, a mother, a sister or brother. When he passed a piece of me passed.”

In a strange twist, the friendship was almost grounded before it was able to takeoff. After their first meeting in the 1970s, Orlando made it a point to seek out Long some time later. “I was in Las Vegas and went to Nellis Air Force Base and they said, ‘We don’t know a Stephen Long.’ I said, ‘Come on you guys, he came home with the rest of them.’” But personnel on the base all claimed they had no records of anyone by that name. “All of a sudden I got a phone call, at the Riviera Hotel.” It was Steve Long. He told Orlando, “The reason you couldn’t find me was because I was working at [Top Secret] Area 51, teaching men to fly the Stealth bomber. That’s why you couldn’t find me. I was busy working for the country.”

There is a side story Orlando is fond of telling. In Texas where he first met Long he said to Bob Hope, “Bob, did you see that one POW, sitting and not clapping?” Hope acknowledged. Orlando walked up to the veteran and explained that he had noticed he wasn’t applauding after each song. Did he not enjoy the music? The veteran replied, “Tony, I’m sorry. My name is John McCain. My arms are torn out of my socket. But what you didn’t see is my big toe tapping, keeping time.” McCain would go on to become a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate years later, despite the lack of full movement of his arms due to the torture he endured in North Vietnam. Ironically, he and Long died within days of each other.

Orlando learned of Long’s passing when Kathy Long called him to report the sad news. “The last time I saw Steve, we held hands the whole time. It was last April,” Orlando said.

Orlando said the one thing that stands out today was watching the ex-POWs enjoying pancakes and waffles. He said he told Long, “I will never taste a waffle like you tasted a waffle, I will never taste maple syrup like you tasted maple syrup. A flower will never smell as good as it smells to you. A handshake, everything you do from now on will be intense. In a way I am envious that I will never know life like you will.” Orlando said Long reached over and hugged him.

Orlando found himself deeply impressed and amazed with the tenacity and love of country that Long demonstrated. “This man, who was tortured, comes home and re-enlists, and becomes a pilot teacher. He said he would do it again and again. This is typical of those who serve our country and especially those who were POWs. Steve was my American hero who became my best friend.”