“One thing I learned in my twenty years of flying for the military is that flying results in hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of stark terror. Still, I do miss an early morning climb-out, looking at the mist rising from the treetops and the sun making a new world out of the chaos you were in yesterday.”
These are the words of my buddy, Rick, who once upon a time did two stints in Vietnam as an Army helicopter pilot.
Since I heard the words “stark terror” I have thought a lot about what that image implies. I’ve never been to war. As I write this I am painfully aware that I am completely inadequate to talk about war in any meaningful way. I don’t have the stripes. I don’t have the dreams. I don’t have any experience in my life other than becoming a Dad for the first time that could be described as terrifying. But I am profoundly respectful of the guys and gals who do understand.
By the time I turned 18 in 1974, the draft had ended, and the war was over. I got a draft card. Registration was still required. But I never got called up. I remember Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley bringing the scenes of war into our living rooms on the evening news. Scenes of protest on college campuses. Flags burning stateside and soldiers looking worn and weary from places like war torn Da Nang.
I didn’t know this until this week. As a result of the war ending on March 29, 1973, President Nixon signed a proclamation making March 29 the date of Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day. Like with so much about that war, this day has been mostly ignored by the masses. No one has ever given it much attention. In 2017, President Trump brought it to light and made it a National Holiday. It’s still not on the calendar. It passed by us a few days ago and most of us were not even aware. Now you know.
In 1965, Rick was just 22 years old. He was working the midnight shift on a job in Oklahoma City when he got his letter from Uncle Sam. His Dad was a WWII Vet who understood enough about war to give his son some advice. On his way to the European theater, his ship was torpedoed and sank. He spent three days afloat in the ocean wondering if he was going to survive.
“Son, you don’t want to be a grub in this man’s Army. Go down to the recruiter’s office, take the test, and see what they have to offer you.”
As it turned out, that was good advice.
After basic training, he reported for Army Helicopter Training at Ft. Wolters, TX. A kid from Oklahoma. He’d never worn a seat belt much less been buckled into a harness and held any flight controls in his hands.
“I had seen a helicopter one time, but never been in one. Our training aircraft were like tiny bubbles with rotor blades. Barely big enough for two people.”
At the peak of training during the Vietnam era, there were 2,000 take-offs and landings a day at Ft. Wolters. Over 500 helicopters in the air at one time on any given day. Like swarms of mosquitoes over north-central Texas.
The Army gave him just 4 months to learn how to work the controls, then it was off to Ft. Rucker to get his feet wet in the cockpit of a UH-1. The Huey.
12,000 Huey Helicopters were commissioned for the Vietnam War. More helicopters in active combat than any war before or since. A little over 3,000 were shot down or lost in the jungle over the course of that war, along with 5,000 crew members.
Just ten and half months after Rick first sat in a helicopter, he found himself flying over the jungles of Vietnam. He flew over 2,000 hours on his first tour. That’s nearly the equivalent of 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for the entire year. At 23 years old he was Pilot in Command with three other men onboard under his care.
“Every time we went out we expected to get shot at. I started out flying “slicks”, missions to drop off reinforcements in combat zones. One of my good buddies lost a rotor and went down in flames. Gunfire coming at us from every direction. I felt something slap the back of my seat. It jolted me forward. I thought my Crew Chief was messing with me. Turned out an enemy round took a chunk out of my seat and ricocheted out the other side of the cabin. It got pretty intense.”
War is not a holy thing, but the blood-stained earth left in the wake of war makes it a scared honor for those caught up together in those moments of stark terror. Those who serve are the only ones who truly understand that what that camaraderie means.
There has always been an anti-war sentiment for every war ever fought, I guess. Airports lined with protestors cussing and spitting at soldiers returning home. People spouting judgments they don’t understand for reasons they cannot justify. Politicians in comfy chairs making decisions that send boys off to jungles and deserts and front lines, knowing that many of them will never make it home. War is a messy business.
Rick is clear about his experience. “When I came home after my first tour, it was rough. It was over a year before I could sleep through the night without hearing gunfire and feeling the vibration of the helicopter. Every time I heard an ambulance siren, I nearly jumped out of my skin. You don’t forget those things very easy.”
I read an interview with David Rainey, another helicopter pilot from Vietnam. “The lead aircraft got shot down as we started to enter the LZ (landing zone). The gunships were giving us cover fire, but our commander ordered us to abort the approach. We could see the guys on the ground waiting for us. So, I ignored the order. The LZ was so tight that the main rotor of the aircraft behind me clipped my tail rotor. I wasn’t sure if we were going to get out of there. But we dropped our troops and pulled out over 30 wounded that day. There was never any discussion among my crew about not going in to do our job. Backing out was not an option. I’m proud of what we did.”
I’ve heard all my life that the Vietnam Vets got a raw deal when the war was over. They came home to a country that mostly didn’t appreciate the sacrifices they made. There was no clear winner. There were no victory parades with cheering crowds. It just ended. And these soldiers were expected to get on with life.
I am honored to have Rick tell me his story. I am humbled by all the men and women who have their own stories. I am grateful to all those, since the first war ever fought in this country, who pledged to one another, and to us, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to make our lives a little more secure. Our freedom a little more precious.
Next March 29th I am going to do my best not to forget those who have been forgotten.