“He was such a baby back then,” my mom said, sitting at her dining room table as we flipped through photos on her MacBook Air.
We were trying to whittle down the photos for a slideshow to be played at my dad’s celebration of life event and this one was my mom’s favorite.
In the photo, my dad is piloting a UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter somewhere over Vietnam in 1970. With his wry smile and raised eyebrows, he looks like an awkward teenager posing for a high school yearbook photo.
He was only twenty years old back then—too young to be at war. Almost all of them were.
Vietnam was called “The Helicopter War” and my dad was at the forefront. He was in the 101st Airborne Division, Phoenix company. His call sign was Phoenix 62 (pronounced six-two). He flew countless rescue missions, supply runs, and troop drop-offs. He would descend onto hilltop landing zones (LZs) while his door gunner tried to fend off anti-aircraft fire ascending from the dense jungle canopy below. After a full day of flying in the stifling heat and humidity, he would retire to the Officer’s Club to imbibe and trade stories with his Army buddies.
It’s hard to imagine myself in his position at that age. When I was twenty, I was just starting to play gigs with my band and the biggest issue I had to deal with was breaking a bass guitar string on stage in the middle of a song.
As I stare at the photo, I think it must have been taken before he was shot down. Before a 50-caliber bullet tore through his chopper’s electrical unit in between him and his co-pilot, while another stray bullet took out his transmission. He was forced to deftly descend to an LZ without power—referred to as autorotation—and abandon his aircraft. Another crew picked him up moments later and it took until 2015 for him to learn who the pilot of that crew was through a Facebook post on Veterans’ Day. He earned a Silver Star—the third-highest military award—for his gallantry that day.
He loved flying. It was what kept him sane in the midst of seeing too many of his buddies killed—sometimes blowing up in midair a mere 100 yards away from him. Flying gave him some semblance of control in an otherwise uncontrollable situation. Plus, it was just a whole lot of fun to fly.
At my dad’s celebration of life event last month, many of his Army buddies traveled from the far reaches of the country to pay their respects to their fallen comrade. They told stories from their year-long stints together in the skies above Vietnam and Laos. There’s a special brotherhood between them. I’ve always been astounded by how big of an impact just one year of my dad’s life had on him.
On one mission, he made a split-second decision that almost certainly saved his life and many others. He was in a line of Hueys making their way into Laos, where they technically weren’t supposed to be, for a mission called Operation Lam Son 719, the largest helicopter mission in history. The lead helicopter made a wrong turn and others followed. They were riddled with enemy fire and one aircraft from Phoenix company was shot down and the crew was killed. My dad took charge and re-routed the rest of the line to a safer passage. His buddies credit him for saving their lives that day. Experiences like that must have helped my dad sleep at night.
It’s not uncommon for sons to look up to their dads as heroes. I did. He always put our family first. But he was also a hard worker and an incredible salesman. He loved helping people and never hesitated to lend a helping hand, both literally and financially.
For a long time, he didn’t tell me much about his time in Vietnam. It was an unpopular war and many Vietnam vets didn’t receive a warm welcome when they came home. He always told my brother and me that he didn’t want us to join the military. I knew from an early age that he was conflicted about his time in the Army. But as he got into his fifties and sixties, he opened up about it more, especially when he started reconnecting with his Army buddies. Yet there was always a humbleness to the stories he shared. I knew he had received the Silver Star, but I couldn’t tell you the significance of it or what it was for exactly. In more recent years, he would wear a 101st Airborne hat and he added stickers to the back of his truck, including one of a Huey. Every time someone would thank him for his service, I could tell it gave him a sense of pride he wished he had felt all those years ago.
My dad was a hero to me because he was my dad, not because he flew a helicopter in the Vietnam War.
But hearing the stories from his buddies who were at his side during those intense moments added gravity to my understanding of his time there.
It was clear that my dad was not only my hero, he was an actual hero.
A hero, deserving of celebration.
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