BY KERRY FIRTH
The energy field surrounding retired Col. Martin J. Zickert mirrors the force of the F4 Phantom fighter jet he flew in the Air Force. Retirement hasn’t slowed him down, as he embraces each day with a sense of adventure and a quest to do something that can change someone else’s life. His life story reads like an action novel full of chance encounters, leaps of faith and opportunities seized.
Born and raised in a small Wisconsin farming town with a population of 954, Zickert grew up playing baseball — the sport that opened the door to his military career.
Having played college baseball for two years at St. Paul University, he was signed by the Milwaukee Braves and assigned to one of its minor league teams as a catcher.
“I was one year behind legendary catcher Joe Torre and he was so good I quickly realized that I didn’t have a prayer of advancing, so I left and started a roofing crew,” Zickert explained. “One day it rained and one of the guys told me about an Air Force program called Aviation Cadets. All you needed was two years of college and the ability to pass their test and they would send you to flight school where you could get your wings and a commission. So, we took the test. I passed. He didn’t.”
Zickert enlisted and went to San Antonio for eight weeks of training. After graduation, he ran the physical training program for about 300 airmen while waiting for his assignment to flight school. During this time a baseball coach encouraged Zickert to delay assignment and play baseball for the Air Force.
“I remember him saying — ‘Son, you can always become an officer, but you can’t always play baseball for the Air Force,’ ” Zickert recalled. “I thought it sounded like fun so I delayed my assignment and played ball. That one decision changed the course of my entire career.”
After an incredible season with a 95-8 record, Zickert was assigned to flight school.
“My very first week in flight school a sergeant walked by and said he remembered me from the baseball team,” Zickert continued. “He was the cadet basketball team coach and figured I could play basketball as well. Since I wasn’t the smartest in the class, I played and became the sports guru until graduation.”
Zickert graduated and went from flying trash haulers to flying B52’s and tankers. He married a girl from Mississippi and moved to a base in the Upper Michigan peninsula where they had 280 inches of snow. They left three years later with two children in tow after he was selected to work on special airplanes and got a promotion to first lieutenant.
“I knew that was about as far as I could advance without a four-year degree, so I left the Air Force, joined the Tennessee National Guard and attended Memphis State to finish my education.”
When his mother-in-law became ill, the family moved back to Mississippi where he completed his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Delta State University and a master’s from Golden Gate University.
During those three years, he went to school in the morning, worked in an entomology lab in the afternoon and flew every other weekend with the Tennessee Air National Guard.
“I missed flying so much that I re-enlisted with Air Force,” he said. “They were actively recruiting navigators so I was accepted immediately and sent on refueling missions in Thailand during the Vietnam War. When the opportunity to fly on the F4 Phantom arose, I jumped on it.”
After a year’s training stateside, he was redeployed to Thailand.
“In August 1973, I was flying F-4Es out of Korat Air Base, Thailand, as part of the Air Force’s last military action in Cambodia,” Zickert reminisced. “Our flight of four dropped 12 each  500-pound bombs just outside Phnom Penh Airport as we shut the chapter on hostilities in Southeast Asia.”
Zickert’s illustrious career included tours in Thailand, the Philippines, Germany and numerous stateside locations. He’s accumulated more than 4,500 flying hours in the KC/RC-135, C-124 and the F-4 Phantom.
He was chief of plans at Spangdahlem Air Force Base in Germany where he planned for nuclear war against Poland and Czechoslovakia and later served as Spangdahlem Base commander. As the Air Force Operations Test and Evaluation Center Detachment commander at Edwards Air Force Base, California, he oversaw the successful testing of the B-2 Stealth Bomber, the C-17 Cargo aircraft, the Fly-Off of the F-22 and F-23 Fighter aircraft and other aircraft testing. After serving more than 30 years, he retired in 1992.
Zickert moved to Vero Beach in 2004 and quickly became involved in the Veterans Council of Indian River County where he served as president from 2010 to 2014 and is the current chairman of the board. During his tenure, the council procured two buses to transport county veterans to the VA Medical Center in West Palm Beach.
He helped establish programs to assist financially distressed families and integrate veterans into the community. He also helped set up the Victory Center Military Store in the Indian River Mall, which is not only a retail store but a gathering place for veterans to share coffee and stories.
With his extensive military experience, Zickert acts as a liaison for the Blue Angels when they perform at the Vero Beach Air Show. His job is to secure the equipment they need before they arrive and to introduce them to the community.
“The pilots and crew love to interact with the public so we created an event at Riverside Park where everyone can meet all of the performers while dining on take-out meals from gourmet food trucks,” he said. “Unfortunately, this year’s show was canceled due to COVID but we are looking forward to seeing them again in 2022.”
MARTIN J. ZICKERT
Lives in: Vero Beach
Family: Three children, five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Delta State University; master’s degree from Golden Gate University
What inspires me? “Seeing the results of something you’ve done.”
What most people don’t know about me: “I’m so competitive that I can’t play board games with friends or family.”