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Col. Marty Zickert was veterans’ best friend

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of July 13, 2023)

Retired Air Force colonel Martin James Zickert, 82, a tireless worker for Indian River County military veterans of all ages and service branches whom everyone called either “Marty” or “Colonel,” died on July 2 while traveling. His son announced he had “succumbed to injuries from a fall in Nashville.”

Loved ones will gather for a memorial service at 9 a.m. July 29 at Vero’s Memorial Island Sanctuary for a memorial service with a dress code.  “The one thing we are asking is no black,” son Michael Zickert said. “Dad was too colorful for black and would want us to celebrate him appropriately.” Later that day, Zickert’s favorite watering hole, Walking Tree Brewery, will host an event in his honor.

Gregarious, witty, dedicated, loyal, direct and tireless, Zickert’s greatest talent was serving as a human catalyst. He could walk into a situation filled with chaos, assess it, organize it, marshal the needed resources and propel the project on to not only action, but success.

Zickert led by example – never asking anyone to tackle a job he wouldn’t do himself. He genuinely loved people, and people loved him back. It was virtually impossible to tell Zickert no when he made a request – especially if the cause involved local veterans.

Though he officially retired from the Air Force with 30 years and five months of service more than three decades ago, Zickert kept busier than most people who work full-time jobs, his calendar packed with volunteer duties, speaking engagements, political fundraisers, road trips in his red Corvette convertible, committee meetings and social events – where he could typically be found in close proximity to good-looking women.

But he was never too busy to take on another project when the need arose, like managing logistics for massive hurricane relief efforts. Starting with Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Zickert and a highly motivated group of locals collected and airlifted survival supplies to Texas, the Florida Panhandle and the Bahamas.

Numerous local nonprofit groups benefited from Zickert’s leadership, most notably the

Veterans Council of Indian River County and its Victory Center Military Store at the Indian River Mall, the United Way of Indian River County, the Military Officers Association of America and the Vero Beach Air Show. 

Zickert proudly served as the air show’s liaison to the U.S. Navy’s elite Blue Angels pilots, who Vero Beach welcomes to the skies for the air show every two years. The Blue Angels were one of Zickert’s favorite things to talk about and he promoted the air show to just about everyone he met, and he loved hanging out with his fellow flyboys as often as he got the chance.

As part of a history project called USA Warrior Stories, Zickert recorded a video in 2019 about his long military career as an aviator and navigator for the Air Force and the Tennessee National Guard. After flying F4 fighters during the Vietnam War, Zickert worked in the Strategic Air Command. He described flying reconnaissance missions over the North Pole, close enough to Soviet planes that the pilots exchanged hand gestures and views of nude centerfolds with the Russians through the cockpit windows.

“Flyers are flyers. We all have a brotherhood, I don’t care if you’re Russian or American, you understand the other person,” Zickert said.

But the Cold War required military officers to be prepared to do the unthinkable, if necessary, so in the early 1980s, Zickert, then a lieutenant colonel, ventured behind the “Iron Curtain” to experience life on the other side.

“First thing they did was they took you to Berlin and you had the opportunity to go through Checkpoint Charlie and go into Russia, in full uniform,” Zickert said, adding that Soviet soldiers kept close tabs on him and examined the rank and award regalia on his uniform.

He got a taste of how people lived under an authoritarian regime. “You just walked through there and the idea behind the whole thing was they wanted to make sure that, if that day ever came, you weren’t going to have a problem hitting the pickle button and dropping a nuclear weapon on them. It was one where you realized exactly what Communism was all about.”

In his retirement, Zickert was especially dedicated to making sure young veterans had a support system when they came home from Iraq, Afghanistan or other global hot spots, so the mistakes of the Vietnam era would not be repeated. If he heard that a veteran was getting the runaround from the Veterans Administration hospital about needed treatment, or if he heard about a struggling young veteran whose family wouldn’t have much of a Christmas, Zickert would get on the phone and call in whatever favors were needed.

Zickert explained why his hard work on behalf of veterans of all ages and branches didn’t ever seem like work.

“I love working with the military. The bond you establish, I can joke with a guy about the Marines, the Army, the Navy and give them all sorts of grief. They give me grief about the Air Force, but we’re all one family, and that’s what you get out of the Air Force,” Zickert said in 2019. “You look at being part of something bigger than yourself. I know that if I ever need anything, I can call those guys and they will do whatever they can to make it happen.”

Hailing from the tiny town of Greenwood, Wis., Zickert joined the Air Force in 1962 with the hope of going to flight school, a dream he delayed to play baseball for the Air Force team. As an Air Force officer, Zickert traveled the world, living in Germany, Thailand and a nuclear command post in the Philippines. He clocked more than 4,500 flying hours in various tanker and bomber jets, with his “spiciest missions” being over Korea.  Zickert completed his undergraduate studies at Delta State University, and went on to earn a Masters in Public Administration from Golden Gate University.

Zickert adored his growing family and reveled in celebrating their milestones, from graduations to weddings to the arrival of great-grandbabies. Zickert was preceded in death by his wife, and he leaves behind son Michael, daughter-in-law Renee, daughter Felicia, three granddaughters and great-grandchildren.